Stephen Sondheim’s second Broadway show as both composer and lyricist (following A Funny Thing) infamously lasted just nine performances in 1964, but the original cast album featuring Angela Lansbury and Lee Remick is a classic, and all admirers of the 80th birthday boy will need little urging to visit Tom Littler’s smart and sassy revival for Primavera in association with Jermyn Street.
While three or four songs short of a good score, the nurse Fay Apple’s three items – “There Won’t Be Trumpets,” “Anyone Can Whistle” and “Take One Step” – are alone worth the ticket price, and Rosalie Craig despatches them beautifully.
But even she is upstaged by a knock-out turn from Issy van Randwyck, shimmering with bitchy malice in a red gown and perfect coiffure, and articulating with the precise savagery of a square-jawed cobra, as the wicked mayoress, Cora Hooper (the Lansbury role), who hoodwinks her townsfolk in the middle of the Depression with false promises and fake miracles.
Arthur Laurents' libretto is a fascinating mess, a sort of botched Group Theatre job Marc Blitzstein might have had knocked into shape by John Houseman, with witty remarks and a love story; Fay is rescued, or corrupted in a different way, by David Ricardo-Pearce’s reforming Hapgood, their future delicately and lyrically poised in their “With So Little To Be Sure Of” duet.
Following the John Doyle model of singers who play instruments, the impoverished townspeople and the inmates of Dr Detmold’s “Cookie Jar” for the socially pressured are played by a versatile octet whose fine playing reinforces their rumbling hostility.
And the designs of Morgan Large (sets), Christopher Nairne (lighting) and Emily Stuart (costumes) are little short of miraculous in giving the piece an epic grandeur in a tiny space.
Van Randwyck glides through the show as if defying a faint smell of democracy under her own nose, guilefully supported by an expert trio of Expressionist crooks: Alistair Robins – so good recently as the pompous baron in A Little Night Music as the Comptroller, Leo Andrew as the Treasurer and Karl Moffatt as a blockish, glaring Chief of Police.