We all have to start somewhere and in the case of Stephen Sondheim it was with Saturday Night, a show set in the year of the Wall Street crash. Though he had served an excellent apprenticeship under Oscar Hammerstein II, which included drafting a version of Mary Poppins entitled Bad Tuesday, Saturday Night was to be Sondheim's first Broadway show. Intended for production in 1955, it was pulled at the last minute when the producer died, and was not in fact staged until 1997 (at the Bridewell Theatre in London), by which time the lyricist of Gypsy and West Side Story and the composer-lyricist of hits such as Sweeney Todd, Company, A Little Night Music and Follies had become a Broadway legend.
Saturday Night, which is being professionally staged in its revised version for the first time in the UK by Primavera Productions at the Jermyn Street Theatre, doesn't come anywhere near the achievement of these later shows, but on this showing it still has plenty going for it. For one thing, there's a marvellous feeling of place, not only in the general sense of Sondheim's magnificent evocation of New York (both musically and lyrically) but also in the way class distinctions are drawn. The young protagonists spend their time hopping between Brooklyn and Manhattan, the former representing reality, the latter standing for aspiration. It's incredibly poignant how Wall St looms over the tale as a nod to the projected audience of 1955, who would have known, like us, that the optimism that fuels the characters' decision to invest all their money in an attempt to get rich quick will come tumbling down on them – but cleverly, Sondheim ends the show on a high, a few months before the crash actually occurs. The first-night audience certainly appreciated the jokes about the state of the economy, which – as this show proves – is on a constant cyclical journey.
Musically, it's fascinating to observe how even early on in his career, Sondheim's songs are driven by the lyrics. Specifically, a colloquial, conversational style pervades many of the lyrics of the piece, with the exception of one or two where the ultimate wordsmith can't resist being perhaps a little too tricksy with his (undeniably witty) rhyme schemes. There are some brilliant examples of Sondheim's art, though, with the title song instantly contextualising the plight of the male characters (they can't find women on a Saturday night in Brooklyn), 'Exhibit “A”' providing an early example of Sondheim's typically wry stance on sexual relations in the form of a 'list song', a moving torch song in 'All For You' (its chromatic accompaniment figure apparently foreshadowing 'Being Alive' from Company), and comic numbers such as 'One Wonderful Day' and 'What More Do I Need?' showing rare forays (for this composer) into conventional musical comedy ensembles. Obviously there are uneven things in the score, which one can imagine the mature composer getting right later on, but there's much to enjoy in this heartwarming comedy, which has an absorbing book by Julius J Epstein.
Although Will Reynolds' sets are inevitably sparse given the limited space of the Jermyn, Tom Littler's production is nevertheless brimming with atmosphere and life. A little slow to get going, it really gets into its stride with the advent of Helena Blackman, runner-up of the BBC's Maria programme and star of this show. Playing Helen Fogel, a girl with a mundane life who passes herself off as a southern aristocrat, Blackman shows a poise and sophistication above those of most of her colleagues, as well as connecting emotionally to the material more than some of the others. Her voice, too, has clarity and is well projected, in addition to the precision of her intonation and expressivity (most notably in 'All For You'). It's ample demonstration that there is, after all, life after reality casting TV shows for the contestants.
What I'm less keen on is the now apparently ubiquitous need to stage fringe productions of shows with actor-musicians, a style of theatre that inevitably results in compromises in the form of artists who are excellent as neither musicians nor actors but merely competent as both. At times, some of the singing here wasn't up to scratch – either underpowered or out of tune – but it could have been first night nerves in some instances. At other times, I found the orchestration too thin and lacking in colour. I also think it's a shame to have used the format for this show particularly, since it obscures the fact that several of the numbers are already diegetic in Sondheim's original conception and should surely be treated as different to the other numbers. 'Isn't It?' is sung over an orchestra playing dance music in the story; 'A Moment with You' is sung in the foreground over the top of a song playing on a gramophone machine in the background; and 'Love's a Bond' is sung at the Plaza Hotel as part of the story. It's a shame that the special nature of these songs is not preserved, but one has to admire the fact that the cast can pull off acting, singing, dancing, reading lines and playing instruments, and the musical arrangement is effective enough most of the time.
Though Blackman is undoubtedly the finest member of the cast, the ensemble is consistently talented. David Riccardo-Pearce is perfect as the weak male lead, Gene Gorman, though his singing needs more power, while Joanna Hickman is self-assured as Celeste and Lee Drage is a particularly outstanding actor in the dual roles of Bobby and Inspector Clune. David Osmond acquitted himself well as the main pianist and acted well as Dino, though the singing was underprojected, and the cast was completed by Nick Trumble's well-sung Hank/Mr Fletcher, David Botham's dashing Ted, Charlie Cameron's witty Florence, Lloyd Gorman's strongly-characterised Artie, Joanna Hollister's hilariously-acted Mildred, and Kevin Millington's ingenious turn as not only Pinhead and Mr Fisher but also the lead percussionist.
There were flaws in both the production and the performance, but I can see many of them being ironed out as the days go by. With an especially entertaining second act, no Sondheim fan or musical theatre addict should miss the opportunity to experience this rare staging of Saturday Night.
Saturday Night runs at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 14 March 2009. For more information, see the show's website.
Photos: Saturday Night at the Jermyn Street Theatre.
CD review of The Story so Far: a 4CD Sondheim boxset
CD review of A Spoonful of Stiles and Drewe: a tribute to the songwriters
Concert Review of Maria Friedman's recent British Songbook show at the Shaw Theatre
Review of A Little Night Music at the Menier Chocolate Factory
Join the debate: if you have any comments on this or any of our articles, visit our forum