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Brief Encounter with... Do I Hear a Waltz? director John Savournin

The Charles Court Opera company's revival of rarely-seen Rodgers/Sondheim/Laurents musical ''Do I Hear a Waltz?'' opens at the Park Theatre this week

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John Savournin in rehearsals
© Bill Knight

Why did you want to revive Do I Hear a Waltz?
Because it's a fascinating piece - full of complexities, challenges, detailed and meaty characters (one especially complex). This is not so much a broadway musical, but a chamber piece, and the music is spell-binding, luscious and incredibly moving; the score sports Rodgers' finest and most artful work in my opinion and it deserves to be seen and heard. As do Sondheim's sharp and thought-provoking lyrics.

Could you provide an intro to the show, for the uninitiated?
The focus is Leona, a "classy secretary" from America who goes on a solo vacation to Venice. She is swept off her feet by an Italian shop keeper, but things are not entirely straight forward and it is bittersweet testament to the complexities of the heart. It's realistic and unusually intimate for a Rodgers show, but that is to its credit and part of what makes it so special.

Why do you think it has been so rarely revived?
I think it was lost amongst big shows such as Fiddler and Hello Dolly when it was first on Broadway - and perhaps the audience weren't quite ready for it. It didn't get under the world's skin and take its place in the canon of regular revivals. It's also a challenging piece, very different from the fluffier musical fair we're accustomed to, which requires a strong cast to bring it off.

Intimate: the Park Theatre

This is the first musical to be staged at The Park - how is it as a space for musicals?
For this sort of musical, I think it's ideal. We're able to focus on the intimacy of the piece and draw the inter-character relationships really clearly. The Park is a very intimate space where you are sucked into the action thanks to the thrust stage and the close proximity of the audience. It's really quite special; what they've managed to achieve is impressive - long may it last.

Tell us more about the work of your company, Charles Court?
Formed in 2005, it started life at the Rosemary Branch Theatre in Islington. It's now one of the leading lights in the recent explosion of small companies bringing opera and musical theatre into unusual spaces such as pub theatres; we aim to embrace a wide variety of repertoire, mainly opera and musical theatre, but also contemporary music, all linked in to education projects, and of course our 'Boutique Pantos' which have become a legendary part of North London's Christmas, apparently! Most of our work is boutique - intimate work that brings the action to the forefront.

You play the dame in the annual panto
Oh yes I do... At the Rosemary Branch ('The Rosie') we had been staging the works of Gilbert and Sullivan mainly, but I had always wanted to stage a panto, having grown up being part of a large scale amateur group in Sheffield. So, in 2007, we had a stab at Cinderella for a short run at the Rosie, where I played an ugly sister, and it's spiralled from there. It's a tradition in Britain to work with the same Dame every year, so we've worked with that model and (so far) it seems to have been the right choice - well, I've quite enjoyed it anyway. We've been trying out a few alternative titles too - Beowulf, The Three Musketeers, Buttons: Another Cinderella Story, and this year will be Billy the Kid: A Panto Western(!)

Does it make it difficult to be taken seriously when directing?!
While it is obviously a lot of fun, we have to take the panto development pretty seriously - it's the only way - especially when it comes to comedy. And some of the cast who have been there for a few years now are used to a scenario where I'm wandering around in a pair of boobs, tights and lipstick giving notes and reviewing choreography!

What's next for you, and the company?
I'm going to Opera North to sing Schaunard in Phyllida Lloyd's production of Puccini's La boheme, before going on to direct The Pirates of Penzance and H.M.S. Pinafore for a tour with the G&S Opera Company of Buxton fame. For Charles Court, we're tackling the G&S comic opera Patience in June before getting into preparations for our next panto. We've also got plans afoot for a large scale show for children and a tour in the pipeline, so we're raising fund for that through our Friends scheme amongst other avenues. Charles Court is about to come into its tenth year, and this musical at the Park is an incredibly exciting step for us on the London scene.

Do I Hear a Waltz opens at the Park Theatre on Thursday (6 March 2014, previews from 5 March) and runs until 30 March