Into the Woods is arguably Stephen Sondheim’s most accessible and popular show. Drawing on the rich legacy of European fairy tales, it weaves multiple stories together throwing previously unlinked characters into the same world, and following their journey as they try to fulfil their hopes and dreams. The first act tells the story of how they achieve their goals. The second deals with the consequences of what they did to get there. But this work of music theatre challenges the concept that there can ever really be a ‘happy ever after’.
The work is both very funny and at times confronting. People die in these woods. And they learn that getting what you wish for may not be worth the price you have to pay. As Red Riding Hood laments, “Isn’t it nice to know a lot – And a little bit not”.
It is a substantial challenge to stage a musical of this scale on a tight budget in the very intimate Belvoir space, and Director Eamon Flack has chosen to pare back both the staging and the orchestrations to a minimum, in order to throw focus onto the stories and characters. And the character choices are strong and entertaining for the most part. But some of the doubling actively works against the narrative, and it’s a pity the budget couldn’t stretch to two more despite the bewildering array of offstage swings and alternates.
The understated set vacillates somewhere between an Art Deco speakeasy, and a Vaudeville magic club, but has some interesting surprises and shimmering textures to evoke a land where magic is not only real but ever present.
But like Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods is strongly divided into two halves with different tones and a quite different aesthetic – and rarely have I seen it as pronounced as in this production. And that may be the productions greatest flaw. The funnier and more ‘camp’ the first act becomes, the more difficult it is to land the second.
Guy Simpsons new piano orchestrations, exquisitely played by Simon Holt, are adequate enough for the most part, working well in the ballads, but get a little thin in the full company numbers which never quite reach their full potential, despite the best endeavours of the performers.
The Baker and his wife’s quest for a child forms the core of the show, and Justin Smith and Esther Hannaford rise perfectly to the challenge. They are subtle and honest and deliver their big songs with real heart and emotional intelligence.
Shubshri Kandiah gets the rare opportunity to play a different Cinderella to the one she toured around Australia with recently, and she glows with a calm focused beauty, despite her rather underwhelming costuming.
Marty Alix plays Jack with their heart very present on their sleeve, and it is a gorgeously innocent and touching characterisation.
Mo Lovegrove’s Red Riding hood is suitably feisty, Peter Carroll’s Mysterious man is wonderfully quirky, and Tim Draxl and Andrew Coshan as the Princes are damn sexy and funny and often steal the show. All the performances work as they should.
Flack chooses to highlight the Witches ‘otherness’ with a European accent amid a sea of otherwise strong Australian vowels. It is certainly a challenge for a performer required to deliver difficult vocal ‘patter songs’ and land some of the most memorable lines in the show. Nevertheless, Tamsin Carroll fights her way through admirably, delivering a different, charismatic and dangerous Witch. Reviewers have been asked not to mention one of the key moments of her character journey so I’ll only comment on its success. The design choices associated with it are niche to say the least. Only the fans will get it straight away and others will be left perplexed until the penny finally drops. And for some, it won’t ever do so. It’s a fun campy idea, but not universal enough. Out of context it doesn’t serve the second act text and distracts for too long.
Nevertheless, while not all the directorial or design choices land convincingly, it is a delight to see the innovation at work. And it is a tribute to the strength and universal appeal of this show that it holds its own with real conviction. The production is both very funny and very moving, and peaks emotionally when it should with the wonderful ‘No one is Alone’ anchored by Smith and Kandia.
Everyone has an opinion on Sondheim, and you can’t please all the people all of the time. However, this is a very credible production with some incredible performers. It rises to meet the challenges of its location with real imagination, and the stories are told with love and a distinctly Australian aesthetic. It’s definitely a rewarding night out, and worth your trip to Belvoir.
Into the Woods
music and lyrics Stephen Sondheim | book James Lapine
Director Eamon Flack
Venue: Belvoir St, Upstairs Theatre, NSW
Dates: until 30 April 2023
Tickets: $47 – $103