The opening of this co-production of Stephen Sondheim’s 1973 musical A Little Night Music, directed by Leeds Playhouse and Opera North, feels like a provocative metaphor for the theatrical arts as they begin to emerge from the pandemic. A phantom light, the only illumination in a dark theater, flickers with hope on the front of the stage. The parquet is ragged and broken at the edges. A dilapidated piano sits, collapsed, on the lip.
It seems that director James Brining finds in this musical, which revolves around the life of ostentatious actress Desiree Armfeldt, a celebration of all that is theatrical. Perfectly reasonable: Not only does it take its title from Mozart’s famous 1787 chamber piece, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, but its narrative is also adapted from Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 comedy film Smiles of a Midsummer Night. Like the Swedish director’s film, Sondheim’s musical combines the vigorous improbability of a French sex comedy with the melodramatic existentialism of Chekhov.
The drama in the lives of the characters – widowed lawyer Fredrik Egerman, his teenage wife Anne, and son, future Lutheran minister Henrik – is unmistakably a farce. Their tragicomic existence results in an increasingly tangled web, involving Egerman’s former lover, the aforementioned Mrs. Armfeldt; the latter’s current lover, married serviceman Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm; his wife, Countess Charlotte; and, looking at them all from the precipice of the old experiment, Desiree’s formidable mother, Madame Armfeldt.
As always with Sondheim, the show carries an emotional and psychological stream rarely associated with Broadway musicals. Songs such as the ironic “The Glamorous Life” and the darkly contemplative “Every Day a Little Death” testify to the composer’s unusual audacity. The universally awe-inspiring cast dances confidently on Sondheim’s tightrope, on either side of which lies a surplus of silliness and an excess of sadness. Egerman de Quirijn de Lang and Count de Christopher Nairne are delightfully competitive alpha males, while Henrik de Laurence Kilsby is every inch the absurd and anguished youngster.
As wonderful as prominent men are, women steal the show. Dame Josephine Barstow’s performance as Madame Armfeldt, a former lover of kings and earls, is as arched, crisp and hilarious as anything you’ll find in Oscar Wilde’s best production. Stephanie Corley has the measure of Desiree, the glamorous actress who pushes back self-knowledge, especially in her touching performance of the most famous issue of the series, “Send in the Clowns”. Amy J Payne, as knowledgeable servant Petra, is a truth-telling working-class heroine, especially in her touching delivery of “The Miller’s Son.”
Finally, the lighting, costumes and sets – filled, in the second act, with a fully functioning water fountain – are as excellent as one could hope for. This is an exceptional production that could beautify stages anywhere in the world.
Until July 17th. Tickets: 0113 213 7700; leedsplayhouse.org.uk