The State Theatre in Melbourne, more spaciously designed for opera with its 2,000 seats than its lustrous Sydney equivalent, was full last Thursday night. It’s likely to remain so for some time. Why? Because Sigrid Thornton was playing Desiree in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, and doing so with dazzling success.
The greatest star to emerge from Australian TV drama was playing the actress, originally conceived of by Ingmar Bergman for his 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night, who looks marvellous for someone who’s hit the middle stretch but sees the past as a succession of follies and capers. Well, Thornton not only looked captivatingly beautiful, but gave a performance every bit as fine.
The audience was flecked with familiar faces. Jane Badler, the one-time star of V (remember Diana, that villainous beauty of a lizard woman?), now a mean hand at theatre and music, was there to cheer on Sigrid, with her husband, Portland House CEO Stephen Hains, who tried in vain to explain the world financial crisis to my friend Colin Oehring. Joanna Murray-Smith was looking youthful and sporty, her hair tied back Grecian-style, almost as if she were in Cannes rather than wintry Melbourne. Her husband, Ray Gill, who has just stopped editing the Age’s arts pages to everyone’s bewilderment, was looking relaxed after his stint in Spain. Donna Aston, the legendary personal trainer who keeps Thornton fit, seemed as sleek and taut as ever. Hannie Rayson was there, and so was Jen Franklin, whose husband Richard filmed Hotel Sorrento and who died nearly two years ago. She was accompanied by her nephew Tristan Sinclair, the young fashion student whom Richard Franklin had turned on to Sondheim.
There is plenty to be turned on to, particularly in this most mainstream of his shows. A Little Night Music was first staged in 1973, sometime after the heyday of the Broadway musical, but it has a silvered beauty all of its own and one of the most sophisticated books of any piece of musical drama. It helps that the original Bergman script (adapted for the show by Hugh Wheeler) is one of the better romantic comedies since Shakespeare. But it’s also true that, with all those waltz tunes, Sondheim found the perfect idiom into which to translate it.
Smiles of a Summer Night may not have been quite so destined to be a musical as Shaw’s Pygmalion, but it’s interesting that Sondheim wrote the central role of Desiree almost as much for an actor as did Lerner and Loewe the part of Higgins in My Fair Lady, albeit one who could carry a tune. Opera Australia had considerable success with My Fair Lady last year, and with A Little Night Music they have the same director, Stuart Maunder, and the same opportunity to indulge in the elegance of Edwardian clobber.
The story of how love is mysteriously awakened in the breasts of this improbable mob of Swedes one summer’s night in the country is delicious, and so are the characters. The old lawyer with the young virgin wife, his old flame the actress with the teenage daughter, the actress’s lover, the stormy shoot-to-kill count. There’s a servant girl who has one terrific raunchy song, and there’s the fiery old countess –– the Hermione Gingold role that Vanessa Redgrave was going to do in New York with her daughter Natasha Richardson before the latter’s tragic death.
She’s the old biddy who sings that winding stair of a patter song ‘Liaisons’ –– probably the greatest song for an old grande dame in the musical theatre. She’s played with drop-dead elegance and flawless timing by Nancye Hayes, who was Richard E. Grant’s mother in My Fair Lady. I saw her Sweet Charity for J.C. Williamson 40-odd years ago.
It’s Sigrid Thornton’s show, however, and she brings great magnetism and elegance, as well as authenticity, to her characterisation of Desiree. The famous face is ageless, almost mask-like in repose, but then she swoops into life, hurling her body about with great comic élan, her voice leaping up and down the scale in a glorious impersonation of an actress who knows how to flaunt. The vowels are refined beyond belief, the comic timing is gorgeous and over the top, with a pulling-out-all-stops quality that will amaze admirers of Thornton’s demureness.
At the same time, she registers not only her bemusement but, beneath it, her abiding feeling for her old squeeze Egerman. It’s a beautifully mature performance, not least because it captures the girl inside the middle-aged woman as well as the woman of real feeling behind the actor’s mask.
Her ‘Send in the Clowns’ is superb. It’s one of those rare moments where you are moved first by the authenticity of feeling and then by the art with which it is done. The smallness and the imperfections of the voice are insignificant because Sigrid Thornton flawlessly calibrates them to the poignancy of the character’s uncertainty — which is precisely what the composer wanted. It’s a performance of great warmth as well as glamour, the two qualities generating their own sizzle and tension.
Robert Grubb as Egerman is also very fine, with the right degree of complacency and ruffled dignity but with a lived-in leathery quality that is perfectly suited to the role. He also sings like an angel without drawing attention to himself. It’s a quality of the production as a whole. This Little Night Music is beautifully sung without any elephantine operatic inflation of the notes into excessive grandeur. Andrew Greene conducts with great assurance.
The rest of the cast are suited to their roles and make up a quite tolerable ensemble without being especially characterful, though Kate Maree Hoolihan gives an exceptionally powerful rendition of ‘The Miller’s Son’, which is the number that carries the burden of Bergman’s lilting, nearly unearthly sense of sex as the rhythm of the world of nature.
In general, Stuart Maunder’s production, while handsome enough in its use of Roger Kirk’s generalised designs, tends to be basic, and the singer-actors could sometimes do with more help. But in the end, with Sigrid Thornton so delicate and spiky, so sensuous in the comedy and so pulled back when love comes breaking in as a revelation of clowns, and with both Robert Grubb and Nancye Hayes so footsure, the show works. The great power of bittersweetness, that quality of love and death nuzzling together that characterises Bergman’s story and Sondheim’s music, wins through. The effect, as with Shakespeare’s comedies, is that weird sense that reality and romance are one.