The show premiered in New York in 1973 but the semi-staged concert we saw at the Palace Theatre on Monday was to celebrate 40 years since it's first London production. It opened at the Adelphi with the deliciously characterful cast of Jean Simmons, Joss Ackland, Hermione Gingold, David Kernan, Maria Aitkin and Diane Langton and their cast recording is still my favourite version.
Owen took great delight in pointing out that, for all my ranting about the current trend of adapting films into stage shows, that A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC was based on Ingmar Bergman's "Smiles On A Summer Night". Indeed Sondheim also did the screen-to-stage PASSION and is said to be working on a stage amalgamation of Luis Bunuel's THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE and THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL. A subtle but important difference to MADE IN DAGENHAM and KINKY BOOTS.
Meanwhile, back to the Palace (sounds like INTO THE WOODS eh?) The Palace really is a frightful barn with a particularly gloomy auditorium but it was good to see it so busy for this one-off event. By the end of it I was aching to see a full revival of the show!
We were treated to a cast that most producer's would chew their leg off to have - namely Janie Dee as Desiree Armfeldt, Anne Reid as Mme. Armfeldt, Jamie Parker as Count Carl-Magnus, Joanna Riding as Countess Charlotte and Laura Pitt-Pulford as Petra.
I felt David Birrell as Frederick Egerman sang well but was a bit anonymous when acting opposite Dee or Parker while Fra Fee as Henrik made the oddest noise when singing in his higher register (which his character does), he sounded like a gurgling drain.
What was enjoyable was getting reacquainted with Hugh Wheeler's exquisite book, the perfect setting for the jewel of Sondheim's score. A great book should give you the impression that, stripped of it's songs, it can stand alone as a play and when original director Hal Prince described the show as being like "whipped cream with knives" that is exactly what Hugh Wheeler wrote, he mixes comedy and drama to perfection.
Even in the semi-staged setting, the best performers sparkled. Janie Dee was a lustrous Desiree with her trademark champagne-dry wit and she sang SEND IN THE CLOWNS with a resigned sadness. Yes, she muffed the final moments during the CLOWNS reprise but by then she had won us over.
Jamie Parker and Joanna Riding were marvellously paired as Count and Countess Malcolm, both finding their laughs with ease. In his solo number IN PRAISE OF WOMEN, Parker showed off his considerable singing skills as he had in last year's GUYS AND DOLLS at Chichester and was huge fun too in the duet IT WOULD HAVE BEEN WONDERFUL with Birrell.
Joanna Riding had the audience in her hand with her cutting lines and also duetted well in EVERYDAY A LITTLE DEATH with Anna O'Byrne's Anne. It would be a lovely change for Anne not to be played as a hysteric but O'Byrne was on firmer territory when singing.
As the all-knowing Madame Armfeldt Anne Reid was enormously enjoyable, her withering put-downs were as dry as dust and apart from a tiny stumble during her solo number LIAISONS she sang it well and it would be great to see her in a proper production, if only for her to have a proper setting for her performance. Madame Armfeldt actually has the very last moment of the action which was lost in a concert setting.
However the best performance was Laura Pitt-Pulford's Petra, the sly and sexy maid who knows exactly what she wants out of life and love. What is interesting is how her solo number THE MILLER'S SON comes straight after SEND IN THE CLOUDS, two songs of great self-awareness, but the latter gives a supporting actress a real moment to shine. Diane Langton's titanic version lives on through the London cast recording and I have seen Sara Weymouth and Kaisa Hammarlund seize that moment to shine and now I can add Laura Pitt-Pulford to that list. She was quite electrifying.
The onstage orchestra sounded great under the musical direction of the curiously-bouncy Alex Parker and although Alastair Knights' direction kept the show moving along nicely, Andrew Wright's choreography was a trifle redundant.
When one thinks of how often theatres are dark it would be nice to think that they could be utilised for similar semi-staged productions or for a seasons of them such as Broadway's acclaimed Encores productions where classic or little-seen musicals are presented.
Well done Duncan Bell for the photographs that capture the event.