‘Saturday Night’ charms Primavera

Rare Sondheim production won SRO houses

Regardless of either the performance or production, whenever Maria in “West Side Story” sings “It’s alarming how charming I feel,” the person most likely to wince is lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

He’s famously hard on some of his own work from his 1957 Broadway debut. Those internal rhymes and that knowing vocabulary from “I Feel Pretty” are, he argues, dramatically inappropriate to an ill-educated Puerto Rican girl. That problem is solved by the current Gotham revival because it’s now sung in Spanish. But anyone in search of Sondheim’s charm — and his work from an even earlier date — should hotfoot it to London’s Arts Theater to catch “Saturday Night.”

Although most of Sondheim’s catalog is rarely out of production on both sides of the Atlantic — Trevor Nunn‘s Menier Chocolate Factory revival of “A Little Night Music” just transferred to the West End — Primavera, a tiny but tireless production company specializing in revivals and rediscoveries, made the savvy decision to stage this barely seen tuner.

Primavera’s spry production, smartly directed by Tom Littler, won SRO houses and good reviews when it played for a month at the tiny, 64-seat Jermyn Street Theater. Unsurprisingly, other venue managements came a-calling.

Wisely, however, Primavera’s producer Chantelle Staynings understands not only the pleasures of “Saturday Night,” but also its limitations.

Take the show to too large a venue and it will expose its problems, most of which lie with the sweet but less-than-convincing book, a romantic tale by Julius J. Epstein from the play “Front Porch in Flatbush,” written with his twin brother, Philip. The siblings are not exactly world-renowned for their plays. But they helped transform an unproduced play, “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” into a screenplay under the snappier title “Casablanca.”

What “Saturday Night” lacks in properly weighted drama, it makes up for in cynicism-free amusement and a few musical hints of things to come. Nicely played by a lively young cast, it’s now at the 345-seat Off West End house for just 19 perfs ending April 11. It then plays a week out of town at the Theater Royal Windsor before a possible tour.

Happily, it’s not just rarity value that makes this revival satisfying. Littler’s handling of actor-musicians is unusually deft.

Too many shows in this vein — including John Doyle‘s weaker productions — either muddy or diminish drama because no matter how skilled they are, performers cannot play off each other while they’re busy playing instruments. But Littler and musical director Tom Attwood cunningly deploy orchestrations allowing central characters to almost always be free of their instruments.The sound of music also lifts another London revival of a rarity. At the National Theater, James Macdonald has staged Christopher Marlowe’s “Dido, Queen of Carthage.”

Macdonald’s largely somber production takes its lead from Elizabethan practice. There’s an upper area for the gods and an inner stage hidden by a curtain used to reveal differing setpieces. By what gives it real atmosphere is Orlando Gough‘s music — with countertenors and strings echoing Elizabethan performance — and Christopher Shutt‘s subtle soundscape of doom-laden winds and rolling and crashing waves.

But those rhythms are not matched by those of the text. “Dido” is rarely staged because its occasionally pungent drama is patchy. It needs the tension supplied by the structure and drive of its verse. Macdonald, however, slows everything down to give naturalistic emphasis to its every beat and thought.

Fascinating though this is whenever the text can withstand it, for much of the evening the approach feels earnest and over-deliberate. It’s the actors are thinking through every extended pause, but it’s at the expense of drama.

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