WHAT IS the collective noun for Sondheim buffs? An intricacy, perhaps. Intricacies of this nature are likely to be descending on Clapham over the next couple of weeks, for, at the Landor Theatre, Myles Stinton has mounted the first professional production in this country of Do I Hear A Waltz?. This is the show with Sondheim lyrics and music by Richard Rodgers which disappeared after a short Broadway run in 1965 - a production more renowned for backstage acrimony than for the material on stage.
Watching the piece in this strongly sung, vilely designed, shoestring production does not inflame you with any great sense that history has been monstrously unjust to the show. The people who appreciate musicals with the wit and intelligence not to tell comforting lies about love or succumb to the temptation to depart from the human scale in overblown production numbers, will be glad to have caught it. Based on a stage play by Arthur Laurents, the show follows the belated sentimental education of Leona Samish, an American secretary who arrives in Venice wanting to find a "magical, mystical miracle" and instead finds Renato di Rossi, a charming not-so-handsome antique seller whom she discovers is married and keeps suspecting of trying to make money out of her.
Sondheim later declared that Laurents's play resists musical adaptation because its heroine, is - on a symbolic level - a woman who cannot sing. In Stinton's production, this problem is compounded by the fact that Rebecca Little, who delivers Leona's numbers with an eager clarity and power, is too youthful and genuinely bright-eyed. The bitterness which underlies the character's perky social manner, and which surfaces in a sour tale-telling drunk scene, would make more sense in a woman 10 years older than Ms Little.
The varied score ranges from love songs with the ardent complex simplicity of di Rossi's plea that Leona "Take the Moment" (arrestingly sung by the fine Ras Johansen) to expertly tart comedy numbers such as "We're Gonna Be All Right". Performed by Leahn Sharman and Paul Callahan as a young American couple whose marriage is coming apart thanks to Italian distractions, this latter song offers a calculated clash between Rodgers's optimistic melody and Sondheim's jauntily rhymed but devastatingly unsentimental catalogue of what festers behind the facade of married compatibility. A typical snatch - He's on the skids/She goes to night school/If it's the right school/He'll permit her/They love their kids/They love their friends too/Lately he tends to/Hit her - ends with a jubilant mock-carefree punch on those last two words.
Kate Copstick brings a dry, undeceived wit and a hint of pain to the role of Signora Fioria, the owner of the pensione who both benefits and suffers from the sexual double standards of a country where divorce is banned and mistresses are countenanced. It's the collision between those double standards and the unacknowledged American variety that provides this musical and its premiere production with some of the most astringent dramatic moments.
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