Sondheim en France Premieres of Follies in Toulon and Sunday in Paris expand admiration
News & Notes Mature Night Music turns 40 Sondheim 101: A Little Night Music Night Music‘s movie soundtrack re-released Night Music at the Arden in Philadelphia Night Music at Opera Theater of Pittsburgh Night Music at the Bay Area’s Hillbarn Theatre Malmö Opera presents Night Music in Sweden
Connecticut Magazine interviews Stephen Sondheim
Features Roundabout’s archives include Sondheim treasures Sondheim shows offer lessons for children Training young performers with songs by Sondheim British prisons are venues for Sondheim shows A conversation about Fiasco’s reimagined Into the Woods Learning about feeling, healing and change from Follies Young Sondheim wrote scripts for an early TV series Hal Prince receives the 2013 Sondheim Award Company’s representation of martial arts Women of Sondheim: Elaine Stritch PS Classics’ Krasker talks about recording Passion
Productions and Reviews San Francisco Symphony performed West Side Story More “Liaisons” from Anthony de Mare Houston staging of Road Show had plenty of gas Company at San Diego’s Cygnet was comfy and cozy Performers love Sondheim Unplugged Friedman’s Merrily in London was a palpable hit Side by Side: productions in Pittsburgh and Tulsa Follies and Sunday build Sondheim’s following in France Fiasco’s Into the Woods showed that “less is more” Ray of Light shines on Into the Woods in San Francisco Recording: City of Strangers by Sondheim Jazz Project Recording: Classic Stage’s Passion Signature’s Schaeffer reinvents Company Singing Sondheim
Cryptic Crossword “Do I Hear a (Night Music) Waltz?”
Looking Ahead Upcoming Sondheim shows in the U.S., Canada
Sondheim en France
Premieres of Follies in Toulon and Sunday in Paris expand admiration REVIEW BY MICHEL PAROUTY TRANSLATED BY JULIE C. MULLINS
Stephen Sondheim is pursuing his conquest of the French public. Two recent productions serve as proof. Toulon is a port city in Southwestern France on the Mediterranean coast. Since 2003, Claude-Henri Bonnet has been the director of the town’s local opera house, a venue that people had stopped talking about but has been reborn thanks to him. His interest in American musical theatre led him to present Kurt Weill’s Street Scene in 2010 for the first time in France, a production received with great enthusiasm. He repeated the move on March 8, 2013, with another French premiere, Sondheim and James Goldman’s Follies. Once again, a success.
From a foreign point of view, it’s difficult to evaluate the risks of musical theatre, so far removed from the ways of Parisian institutions. To present Follies to an audience primarily fond of Verdi and Puccini is an uncertain proposition, even as France is just beginning to understand Sondheim. But audacity pays off. Bonnet’s production achieved a triumph: Follies was filmed for distribution on national television and will be edited for DVD release.
The director of Follies, Olivier Bénézech, also helmed Street Scene. To do this particular repertory justice , he bestowed an essential sense of rhythm, timing and movement. In Follies the scenes unfolded smoothly without clashing or any slow moments. The comings and goings through time and the occasional simultaneity of actions required by the plot demand a theatrical narrative of great clarity, especially when audiences are seeing the piece for the first time. There again, Bénézech demonstrated praiseworthy intelligence and effectiveness.
Set designer Valérie Jung understood her subject matter well and provided invaluable support for the production. She devised a principal set piece as simple as it was functional. The bare walls of an empty theatre, grey and sinister, served as the primary space for the unfolding action. In the middle of the back wall, a door left ajar revealed the mechanical shovel that the next day would demolish the building. On the same wall, a metal staircase led to a footbridge.
All the visuals changed for the “Loveland” segment — the introduction of color, as well as video projections on pillars descending from the flies that created a perspective reminiscent of the painted canvases of Baroque opera — enabling audiences to forget the daily grind and find themselves transported into a dazzling dream that made the return to reality even more painful.
Although video is a current trend in opera, it must be used with intention — and Gilles Papain’s creations were. As for Frédéric Olivier’s costumes, they passed easily from ultra-classic elegance to the craziest delirium in Loveland’s glitter and sequins. David Charles Abell conducted the 46-member Toulon Opera Orchestra. He understands Sondheim’s music in intricate detail and interpreted all of its nuances and emotions. Always precise and flexible, his conducting lacked nothing. [Editor’s Note: TSR published an interview with Abell in its Winter 2012 issue.] The work was presented in English, and some of the cast came from classical repertory backgrounds. However, several French cast members played their roles with great dignity, proving wrong any who might think that musicals don’t have a place in France. Nicole Croisille, a popular variety actress, portrayed a petulant Carlotta Campion and, at 76, showed she hasn’t forgotten her earlier career as a dancer. Solange LaFitte was played by a man, Denis d’Arcangelo, known for his creation of a transvestite character, Madame Raymonde (parodying a real chanteuse); he was devastatingly funny. Julia Sutton was a touching Hattie Walker with an almost childlike charm. Marilyn Hill Smith leveraged her crystalline voice to portray a charming and poetic Heidi Schiller, and Sarah Ingram was a feisty Stella Deems. Jo Cameron Brown and John Conroy, the touching Whitman couple, rounded out a wonderful team, joined by Joe Shovelton, a cartoonish Roscoe, and Larrio Ekson, a distinguished and exuberant Weismann.
The four protagonists were portrayed by a fine quartet. Gifted with a ravishing voice, Charlotte Page was a moving Sally Durant Plummer who hasn’t lost all hope despite her dissatisfaction with her husband Buddy Plummer, incisively played by Jérôme Pradon, a Frenchman frequently seen on London’s West End stages. Graham Bickley’s Benjamin Stone, hiding his wounds beneath a showy cynicism, confronted Liz Robertson’s bitter and disillusioned Phyllis Rogers Stone. With great talent, they all played the game of lost illusions.
Though surprised at first, the Toulon audience didn’t restrain its enthusiasm for a show that was one of the season’s best. Co-produced with the Opéra de Metz, Follies will be reprised there with the same team on April 18-19, 2015. It goes without saying that the DVD release is eagerly awaited.
If Sondheim becomes recognized in Paris as one of America’s most important composers, it will be due to the efforts of Jean-Luc Choplin, director of the Théâtre du Châtelet. This spacious, 2,000-seat venue was once the grand temple of large-scale French operettas, a genre that has all but disappeared.
Choplin has aspired to familiarize French audiences with the Anglo-Saxon tradition of the musical, and he has achieved his goal, doing so exactingly and without cutting corners. Productions have been presented in their original English versions with French supertitles; the directors and performers have been chosen carefully, including some singers who enjoy solid reputations in the opera world, such as baritone Rodney Gilfry, who starred in Sweeney Todd in 2011.
For this enterprising producer, Sunday in the Park with George represented a real adventure. Less immediately accessible and seductive than his previous productions of Sweeney Todd and A Little Night Music (2012), the work by Sondheim and James Lapine might seem difficult for an audience unfamiliar with the material, even though part of the action takes place in France and the main protagonist is a universally recognized French painter.
But once again, Choplin had a lucky hand. Some weeks after Follies in Toulon, David Charles Abell took up the baton once again. This time his task was even more important, conducting the world premiere of Michael Starobin’s new orchestrations for 46 musicians in the pit, plus the horn player in the painting, who contributed fanfares that Sondheim and Starobin included in the 1984 score. Dynamic and poetic, Abell truly gave the score a distinctive sound, varied colors and the brilliance of a diamond. The Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, one of two national radio orchestras and one of Paris’s best, played in top form and brought a welcome and enriching classical touch to the music.
The Châtelet’s Sunday used a significant cast of performers: 17 soloists, plus a dozen chorus singers. There wasn’t a single weak link. Each performer succeeded in bringing his or her character to life, and with fully realized personalities even in the most difficult scenes, so that all were truly present onstage. Rebecca de Pont Davies (An Old Lady in Act I and Elaine in Act II), Jessica Walker (Nurse and Harriett Pawling), David Curry (A Soldier and Charles Redmond), Rebecca Bottone (Celeste #1 and Betty) and Beverly Klein (Yvonne and Blair Daniels) created delightful character studies, as did Nikolas Grace (Jules and Bob Greenberg).
Sophie-Louise Dann was Dot, then her daughter Marie in Act II. Her sharp, slightly metallic voice resembled that of Bernadette Peters who originated the role. Her style was all finesse: funny, moving, poignant — even in the final scene when she appeared to encourage her grandson. Julian Ovenden, a big name on the current English theatre scene, assumed the roles of both Georges in virtuosic fashion: ardent and stubborn in Act I, when Seurat, spellbound by his art, sacrifices his personal relationships; then feverish and worried in Act II, when the creator of “Chromolumes” is consumed with doubt. He set the stage on fire effortlessly, conquering the vocal and rhythmic challenges of “Color and Light” and “Finishing the Hat.”
If there was one criticism to be made about this production, it would be that it did not sustain the quality of the play in the Châtelet’s huge space: Sunday would be better suited to a smaller, more intimate venue that brings the performers closer to the audience. William Dudley had to design a set to fit the enormous space. The live video feed — seen until Seurat’s immense painting was completed magnificently, unfurling colorful images against a white cyclorama wall. The painter’s studio seemed too large, and the museum was truer to life than the real thing, with its pure, cold lines. Lee Blakeley’s staging was fine-tuned, measured to the millimeter, fluid, elegant, natural, full of humor and love — fitting the image of a work whose first act remains a unique masterpiece of its genre.
Audiences didn’t receive this production with as much enthusiasm as the Châtelet’s previous presentations of Sondheim’s works. Reviews were mixed, but defenders of Sondheim showed their satisfaction with an opening night ovation for the composer, especially as they reveled in Starobin’s eagerly anticipated expanded orchestration. Filmed and broadcast live by France Musique, Radio France’s music channel, which dedicated an entire day to Sondheim, this production is expected to be released on DVD, coinciding with the publication of the first book in French about Sondheim, written by Renard Machart.
Next season the Châtelet plans to present Into the Woods. The adventure continues.