By Fred Pryce
Even by the standards of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, Into the Woods is an odd beast. Taking a half-dozen immortal fairy tales and the markers of many more, it creates a world where these stories interact with each other in very human ways, finding humour, darkness, and emotions, without settling for easy answers (in a pre-Shrek era, this was considered revolutionary). For all the songs and princesses, the show has an acidic and macabre wit involving a lot of (non-explicit) suffering and death, often to characters we care about. It’s also almost three hours long with intermission, is ungainly and complicatedly plotted, and has a postmodern sensibility that defies expectation and resolution. And it’s one of Sondheim’s most popular shows! All this preamble avoids that the production by brand-new company Bloom Creative is just terrific, and a worthy showcase of this singular musical.
This version is presented ‘In Concert’, referring to the concert hall space of the Concourse, and that the large orchestra is present onstage behind the actors. They are cleverly integrated into the action, with bows and violins wielded as weapons, characters banging percussion and the players contributing to the effects. More importantly, it allows Sondheim’s lush score to fully flourish. The orchestra plays almost constantly, and the music contains layers of intricate patterns, sonic representations of characters, places and themes. The woods themselves, symbolic of change and uncertainty, are given life by the orchestration under Peter Hayward’s direction, creating a needed sense of magic. Alongside this, a full musical’s worth of set is still present, with married production team Jordan and Laura May Vassallo using elements of a living room as inspiration, the whole play sprouting from a storybook read by a waggish Narrator (a high-energy Wayne Scott Kermond). The gallery seats are used smartly as settings for towers and trees, and pantomime-like props such as Milky White (an important cow) are always delightful, though the creation of a terrifying giant was less effective, if not distracting. Though there is some choreography (it’s a feat alone organising the large cast onstage), the formidable performances are smartly left front-and-centre.
There was a small hiccup: Laura Murphy, in the prized role of The Witch, had no voice, and the part was spoken/sung by Brittanie Shipway, sitting to the side. But there was no need to worry, as the lip-syncing worked with the character’s otherworldly presence, and Murphy’s exaggerated physicality was perfectly aligned with Shipway’s elastic vocals (the rendition of Last Midnight was breathtaking, a showstopper). There were simply no weak links present. Haydan Hawkins was a highlight in the funniest role, as both a repulsively sexual Wolf and a prancing, arrogant Prince (“I was raised to be charming, not sincere,” he booms). The heart of the show are the Baker and his Wife, and Nat Jobe and Katie McKee make them deserving heroes, bringing charm, intelligence, and a weary pathos. Despite all the fantastical silliness, for the show to work hard lessons must be learnt and we emotional consequences must be felt, and I found myself surprised at how affected I was by their connection and resilience. It’s a long road to an unconventional conclusion, but above all a chance to see beautifully done musical theatre, presented classically and earnestly (and give the movie version a miss).
Photo Credit: Grant Leslie
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.