Review: A Little Night Music (Sydney University Musical Theatre Ensemble)

muse2Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Mar 25 – 28, 2015
Book: Hugh Wheeler
Music & Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Director: Alexander Andrews
Cast: Stuart Bryan, Emma Elsley, Owen Elsley, Harry Flitcroft, Louise Flynn, Sarah Gaul, Bronwyn Hicks, Christie New
Image by Wenray Wang

Theatre review
Desiree and Frederik are middle-aged but they are yet to find fulfilling relationships. Sondheim’s A Little Night Music is a very adult love story that contains more farce than it does romance, and speaks to a slightly jaded audience that understands the complexities and illusions of love. The text is an intelligent but mischievous one, offering interesting insight into the personal aspects of mature lives. The most popular song of Sondheim’s entire oeuvre, “Send In The Clowns” is a prominent feature that encapsulates the experience of longing and regret. The decision by MUSE (Sydney University Musical Theatre Ensemble) to stage the work is ambitious on many fronts, but the greatest challenge is for its very young team to convincingly portray the show’s main characters who are at least twice their age. The humour and pathos of the narrative, and its musical numbers, are heavily nuanced and demanding of any cast, but to expect those who have yet to taste all the flavours of life to interpret A Little Night Music with depth and poignancy is a very tall order indeed.

Director Alexander Andrews may not have the most seasoned performers at his disposal, but his flair for musical theatre is undeniable. Andrews is careful to keep the stage active with movement and surprise, so that we are visually engaged throughout the three hour production. Dramatic tension is not always present, and the piece often lacks exuberance, but sequences are paced quickly, with fresh events unfolding consistently to retain our attention. Stronger performers include Christie New, who creates a very funny Charlotte Malcolm, endearing us with sharp self-deprecation, and a knack for delivering powerful punchlines in both speech and song. Also memorable is Madame Armfeldt, the brilliantly zany matriarch presented by Sarah Gaul with gusto and flamboyance. Stuart Bryan cuts a fine figure as the show’s leading man, but his approach is too reserved, and his self-consciousness distracts from Frederik’s emotional journey. Quality of singing in the production is accomplished. Clare Richards’ powerful soprano is a standout, and Conrad Hamill’s work as Music Director, while being fairly rigid is delightfully detailed and precise.

Mr Sondheim’s work is quite literally second to none. He is an original and an undisputed genius, whose creations are ubiquitous and magnificent. Good productions of his body of work make for sublime nights of unparalleled theatrical pleasure, but lesser attempts can still be enjoyable by virtue of the sheer prowess of foundations already laid down years before. Musical theatre is rarely reinvented, and young practitioners of the genre subject themselves to emulating successes they had witnessed before. There is a sense of duplication that exists, whether effort is put into matching what had been great, or intentions are to supercede prior manifestations. It is a true conundrum, when one considers the true essence of art and the pursuit of all that is new.