I rarely go to the National thinking that what I am about to will be of dubious quality or over pretentious. I was not disappointed. Of Sondheim's musicals, A Little Night Music, is not one of my favourites - a little tedious at times, but this production really did something for me. The story is based on Ingmar Bergman's film "Smiles of a Summer Night" (which I have not seen), and the NT production brought a whole new cinematic quality to this production. The sets rotated and lifted out of the stage with great ease as if the camera was panning across a stage. Huge scenery elements dropped from the sky and the lighting was quite stunning.
There was some superb acting. The emphasis is intentional. It is too easy in huge musical pieces like Les Miserables or Phantom of the Opera, for the acting to be a little hammy as the singing takes precedence. Often that style suits the musical in any case. A Little Night Music is fairly dramatic in tone and this fine acting only helped the music flow with the dialogue. Patricia Hodge as Countess Charlotte Malcolm was superb, Sian Phillips (Madame Armfeldt), I could take or leave (but then I just don't go for that sort of old, husky, female), though she had a definite stage presence. Laurence Guittard (Frederik Egerman) gave a well-paced humoured performance, but he was being dominated by three far bigger names. Dame Judi Dench was, well, interesting. She was the undoubted star. The rest of the audience and I found her sense of comic timing and acting capability quite amazing. But the singing..., well it was good, and that's all. Desiree Armfeldt is a part that demands little real singing so you will never see the musical metal of any actress who plays her. The real trouble is That Song. It is not really a song. It's too easy - you can practically speak it. I am of course talking about Send In The Clowns. The audience went wild (or as wild as a middle class NT audience ever gets) when she finished the number. Yes, she was good, she delivered with understated style. But it really was not worth the response.
This all confirms my belief that the audience are always the worst part of a musical.
I commend you to go and see this wonderfully staged piece of real dramatic musical theatre, even if you think you don't like the musical per se. These fabulous performances may change your view. Just do me a favour - and do not get unnecessarily worked up when Judi Dench delivers Send In The Clowns.
The story originates from the Swedish movie "Smiles of a Summernight". As Swedish movies tend to be a little heavy and Mr. Sondheim also isn't the light-heartiest of men, I imagined this musical could be very gloomy and sad. But it wasn't! It was witty and bright. Very cleverly written with the occasional sarcasm Sondheim is so famous for.
Dame Judi Dench is an excellent choice for the role of Desirée Armsfeldt. Her smoky voice suits the part perfectly and her interpretation of "Send in the Clowns" - which I otherwise think of as Sondheim's most boring song - sends shivers up your spine.
The settings and costumes are breathtaking. A half see-through curtain is used a couple of times for a dreamy sequence; as it is used at the very start, when you see grandmother dancing with her granddaughter. The lighting is very atmospheric. As the story takes place in Sweden at the time of the midnight sun, there is a continuing twilight.
This is a musical with character: full of haunting waltzes, an intriguing story-line, beautiful songs an elegant people and with a happy ending (which is a rarity with Sondheim!)
One note of criticism: the songs do not always form a unity with the spoken words. For example the song "You must meet my wife" seems to be dragged into the scene. Also "Every day a little death" seems to be out of place. They are such charming songs, though, that it would be a shame to cut them out.
This might not be Sondheim's best-ever musical. But it's close! Run to see it, when you like intelligent, elegant entertainment.