In the year and a half since Sondheim passed, it is little surprise that an even greater appreciation has sparked for his great works with even more Sondheim shows hitting stages in all theatre markets globally. Praised for his innovative use of lyrics and tempo and for the boldness in many of the stories chosen, there is no questioning that Sondheim was a once in a generation talent.
Belvoir is one of the latest companies to put its hand up to honour Sondheim after his passing with an inclusion of one of his show’s in their 2023 season, Into the Woods.
Michael Hankin designs the space for us to witness this new production. Though inventive in design with unexpected pop out moments (a highlight being the witch’s scooting out of a hidden door in the back wall), much of the set was used to minimal affect, for example, the mini houses which, though cute, added little to the design or plot development as the show progressed. The pianos in the middle of the stage didn’t necessarily add much either. That said, when the blue stage curtain revealed a new set element (need to keep some surprises!), the space instantly felt more atmospheric and worked beautifully in tandem with the lighting.
Though elements of the set where hit and miss, Micka Agosta’s costume design was particularly unique. With the different characters having distinctly different tonal palettes, we were able to see a great range from Agosta. Notably, the second act upgrade of Jack and his mother’s costumes to better allude to their shared Filipino culture was brilliant, a particular highlight being Jack’s mothers’ jacket which featured a classic Philippine Terno sleeve in vibrant jade. It was great to see different styles taken on for different characters, rather than a uniformity across the show. The witch’s costume and make up design, for example, clearly amplified Tamsin Carroll’s interpretation of the witch by taking a more 1920s European cabaret star vibe. The cleverness of the design was on show each time an interlude causing all characters to come out and sing together was on display. Half dressed between characters, the costume design allowed for them to feel more like a storytelling troupe.
Damien Cooper’s lighting could have been utilised a little better to help with audience sightlines, especially during ensemble songs but once that curtain revealed the second act staging, the lighting really got to have its moment. There was a noticeable difference in tone in the lighting between Act 1 and 2 and whilst through the first act I was unaffected by the lighting and its presence through the scenes, by Act 2, I was certainly intrigued.
Led by Director Eamon Flack, it is the cast that is clearly the strongest element of this show. Though not all equal in ability, the cast worked well as an Ensemble which is a critical element of this particular Sondheim show.
Stand outs were unquestionably Stefanie Caccamo as Rapunzel - incredible! What can’t this girl do?! With her beautiful clear soprano vocals and clear knack for comedy, she excelled in this show as she jumped between characters. It is worth noting that as well as the three characters she already plays nightly - Rapunzel, Granny and Florinda, she also is the onstage cover for a further 3 roles! That is 6 tracks to learn and incredibly impressive proving again that Caccamo is one to watch!
Justin Smith too played his role to perfection. As is his style, he played Aussie realism to perfection, giving a unique take on this very known role of the Baker. His chemistry with Esther Hannaford, another standout, was palpable and a true highlight of the show. A true storyteller, Smith played well against almost everyone on stage, bringing a beautifully raw energy that proved to be a real tear jerker. Importantly, he absolutely nailed the ‘dad energy’ which is imperative to the audience walking away from this show inspired rather than depressed. He was excellent.
Similarly, Hannaford not only had beautiful chemistry with Smith, but clearly offstage with music director Simon Holt as well who has cleverly utilised Hannaford’s specific tonal qualities which proved to drastically enhance her character as the Baker’s Wife. Hannaford proves herself up to the task of being the moral core of the show and her characterisation of the Baker’s Wife at the end is heartbreaking.
It was interesting to see Australia’s resident Disney princess have a go at giving us a different side of her Cinderella. Shubshri Kandiah, whom most recently played the role in Roger and Hammerstein’s Cinderella that toured Australia, used her, as usual, angelic voice once again but this time gave Cinderella a lot more teeth and really sunk herself into the role. It was definitely good to see what she can do! Tim Draxl as both her prince and the wolf was excellent! He showed off his excellent characterisation skills as he switched from the consummate douche of a prince to equal parts disgusting and sexy Elvis evoking wolf.
But ultimately, it is Tamsin Carroll as the Witch who steals the show. Her performance alone is well worth the price of your ticket. Utterly incredible, Carroll has created such a unique character for the witch that can only be described as being somewhere between Bette Midler and Moira Rose. Every time she was on, she simply commanded the stage, as it imperative to this character. I loved the European, lazy, jaded interpretation with a cigarette always in hand approach she took. Perfect both in strong and vulnerable moments with an unfaltering voice, Carroll simply shone.
Ultimately, it is a solid effort on a show that does generally sit outside Belvoir’s programming style and whilst there needed to be a bit more time and effort put in to unify the show to ensure all elements were of an equal standard, with the talent on display, it would be hard to not enjoy it overall. If for no other reason but to support this wonderful cast and say ‘I saw them when…’ it is worth grabbing any remaining tickets.