Near perfection: A Little Night Music, Oxford Playhouse

Sondheim was inspired to write A Little Night Music by Bergman’s Smiles of A Summer Night.  Woody Allen took his lead from the same film for his A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, and Sondheim’s work bears a striking resemblance of feeling to Allan’s comedy.  In both we enter a rural dreamscape of smiles and farce, and watch the love lives of a few couples break down and then resolve.  But where Allen has his genius in comedy, the genius here is Sondheim’s orchestration.  The score is brilliant, written for an orchestra without percussion, a stream of warm lyrical waltzes and complex choral ensemble arrangements.  Sondheim succeeds where so many musicals fail, weaving the motion of the plot into the music, so that no song is superfluous and the three hour production moves at exactly the right pace.  When the curtain falls, one hardly realises the time that has passed.

Or at least that was the case with director Griff Rees’ and musical director Jonathan Soman’s production.  We begin in the hall of an upperclass family, with great white walls, chandeliers, and french doors opening onto an orchard of trees and an azure sky growing dark.  The whole thing is a fine feat of stage design.  An old lady, Madame Armfeldt (Natasha Heliotis), is wheeled onto the stage, and with the tap of a tuning fork she heralds the music of the night, as dancers in white-tie waltz through the hall.  The dream-like quality of the show is maintained by the Liebeslieder of five fine singers who comment on the play like a Greek chorus and change scenes in dance.  By the end of the overture we have entered the heady, thick, and jovial atmosphere of love and lust amongst the upper classes.

The musical explores the amorous entanglements of a lawyer (Richard Hill) who, though married to a virgin (Ellen Timothy) for eleven months, takes up with his flame of fourteen years ago, the stunning Desirée (Georgina Hellier).  Throw into the mix Desirée’s lover, the bumbling buffoon dragoon, excellently played by Aleksandar Cvetovic, his wife (Veronica Heney) and the lawyer’s sexually repressed (though a real trier) son (Stephen Hyde), and we have a fine mixing pot of hilarity and farce.

The comedy of relationships soars towards resolution in the second act, when the couples retreat for a weekend in the country.  The night smiles on all and you will probably come out smiling too, but be warned, this musical has more layers than most, and Natasha Heliotis’ acting deserves special recognition for giving a human perspective to all this joviality.  For while the life of those in love is always light, one eye must be kept on this old woman, who darkens the dream of love with a melancholy realism.

The orchestra gave a flawless performance, and the only problem, which will hopefully be swiftly corrected, was with microphones, occasionally too loud or too soft, and at times one struggled to hear singers above the orchestra.  But those times were rare.  For the most part the tricky balance between orchestra and vocals was handled admirably by the production team. The lighting, too, was near perfect, drawing us seamlessly into the dreamy twilight.

A few dialogue scenes lacked energy, and could have been a little quicker.  But the pace increased once the cast returned to singing,  and the production didn’t suffer from anyone’s acting.  Vocally there is very little criticism to be made, all were at least solid singers.  Ellen Timothy’s singing was particularly brilliant as was that of Anj Joseph and Heather Catchpole (members of the Liebeslieder).

A Little Night Music sent me bounding happily into the night after a splendid evening of entertainment, and I cannot urge you enough to see it.

***** (FIVE STARS)

A Little Night Music plays at the Oxford Playhouse until Saturday.

PHOTOS/Anatole Oudaille-Diethardt