There’s much that’s beautifully familiar about Victorian Opera’s latest Stephen Sondheim outing, which was preceded by Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd over recent years.
There’s that marvellous music first heard in 1973, of course, including well known showstopper Send in the Clowns. Then there’s the production, designed by Roger Kirk and directed by Stuart Maunder 10 years ago for Opera Australia, which featured Nancye Hayes in the role she now reprises, Madame Armfeldt.
The cast of Victorian Opera’s A Little Night Music. Photo © Jeff Busby
Those who weren’t lucky enough to see it the first time might recall similarities with Melbourne Theatre Company’s 2018 An Ideal Husband. From Simon Gleeson playing a gentleman with marriage problems, to sumptuous Edwardian-era costumes and an elegant set that’s more about curtains than furniture, there’s a sense of déjà vu.
Beautifully familiar or, for those who come with fresh eyes, a simply beautiful night at the theatre – apart from some sound issues. Early on opening night, the amplification of the performers was distinctly hollow, and was not always quite right throughout of the performance.
The Playhouse’s slightly chilly acoustics and small orchestra pit also made the Victorian Opera Chamber Orchestra sound a little thin. Nevertheless, band leader Jo Beaumont was still able to draw out both the poignancy and effervescence of Sondheim’s waltz-inspired score.
Ali McGregor and Simon Gleeson in Victorian Opera’s A Little Night Music. Photo © Jeff Busby
Key to the many reasons why this A Little Night Music otherwise works so well, however, is Ali McGregor as Desirée Armfeldt, the famous actress of a certain age with a string of lovers but a growing feeling of regret. McGregor’s talent and experience, spanning opera to cabaret, comes together perfectly in this role. From well timed, sometimes suggestive comedy, to a Send in the Clowns with such exquisite expression it’s difficult to imagine the song done better, she is the obvious star of a consistently good cast.
Elisa Colla and Verity Hunt-Ballard in Victorian Opera’s A Little Night Music. Photo © Jeff Busby
As Fredrik Egerman, the long lost lover who comes back into Desirée’s life, Gleeson has a gentle charm and humour that makes this romantically perplexed man genuinely appealing. Elisa Colla nicely conveys the youthful flightiness of his new wife, Anne, and Mat Verevis walks a fine line of barely repressed desire as Henrik, Fredrik’s adult son, who is in love with his 18-year-old stepmother.
Samuel Dundas brings his warm baritone, tall physicality and a puffed-up ego to the role of Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, Desirée’s current lover. As his long-suffering wife, Countess Charlotte, Verity Hunt-Ballard sometimes steals the show when serving up this musical’s most Wildean observations with acerbic wit. Alinta Chidzey has fun as Anne’s saucy maid Petra, then shines in her only real chance to sing: her lovely, lyrical mezzo voice and tender phrasing makes The Miller’s Son a highlight of the show.
Sophia Wasley and Nancye Hayes in Victorian Opera’s A Little Night Music. Photo © Jeff Busby
Playing Desiree’s mother and teenage daughter, Hayes and Sophia Wasley are just what one might wish. They are supporting, observational characters embodying wisdom and inexperience in this tale of love in its many guises, from youthful desire to regret in the autumn years, innocence, self-denial and jealousy. A Greek-chorus-like quintet of socialites also glide through proceedings on the central revolving stage, singing wittily and prettily about human folly and the flawed figures at the centre of the action.
Lit with the golden glow and dusky pastels of midsummer in Scandinavia by Trudy Dalgleish, Kirk’s set and costumes exude belle époque leisure and beauty. Stage and scenes are deftly partitioned by numerous huge but almost insubstantial gauzy curtains graced with impressionistic suggestions of giant flowers. Against this active backdrop, lightly scattered with elegant period furniture that revolves in and out, a parade of costumes catch the eye: vividly coloured, extravagantly beaded evening gowns; dreamy cream lace summer dresses; handsome suits and uniforms.
Familiarity can breed contempt, but with such visual delights and a quality cast, A Little Night Music only gets better and better.
Victorian Opera’s A Little Night Music is at the Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne, until July 6