In the shadow of celebrated composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s recent death in November 2021 and in light of obstacles and outcomes brought by the current global pandemic, Into The Woods resonates with a timely round of collective sentiment and meaning.
But, alas, it always does! Sondheim’s most frequently revived work, with book by James Lapine, never fails to impress its ingeniously conceived microcosm of life upon lives inescapably drawn, bound or enveloped by the metaphor of the woods.
After several thwarted attempts to bring the show to the stage over the last two years, the team of Watch This – a company dedicated to Sondheim’s repertoire – have finally, and highly commendably, cultivated a striking piece of theatre overflowing with wit, charm and poignancy.
The plot draws attention to the perennial idea of (being careful of) what we wish for and based on an amalgamation of characters from the Grimm brothers’ collected folk tales.
In order to bear a child, a childless baker and his wife are in search of four objects belonging to “real” fairy tale characters in order to reverse a curse put on them by a neighbouring witch. With that, enters the characters of Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella and Rapunzel in a marvellously and wildly woven fabric of life.
Everyone wishes for something and each of their journeys into the woods amplifies decision and consequence in vulnerable human detail. Accompanied by both touching and comical display, it is commandeered splendidly by the directorial duo, Sonya Suares and Melanie Hillman.
Suares and Hillman, together with Amy Zhang’s lightly incorporated choreography, have provided great scope for the cast of 12 to sing-speak and act out their characters with a successful balance of natural behaviour and theatrical gusto.
Significantly, spatial breadth and depth give ample opportunity to facilitate a sense of freedom in each and everyone’s ventures, with multiple entry/exit points enlivening and siphoning the action cleverly.
With the audience seated on three sides, the expanse of the stage area is further enhanced by the timber arched ribbing of the historic Meat Market, a fitting structure for set designer Sarah Tulloch’s delightfully verdant and climbing plant life, painted forest backdrop and ornamented with chandeliers.
Rob Sowinski’s subdued lighting design dapples the setting with warmth and mysteriousness and Jodi Hope’s costumes colour the characters with an appealing and easy straightforwardness. Quite magically, the lure and embrace of the woods is always palpable.
As an interpretation of musical theatre, the talents and zealousness of the ensemble cast lend great personality. On Thursday night, Act One took a good time for some to accommodate for miked singing, with higher pitches and volumes often sounding screeched, but the distractions eventually melted away.
In a similar timeframe, musical director Ned Wright-Smith and musical supervisor Trevor Jones’ band of just 6 musicians struck radiance after a partly smudgy start. But everything about Act Two gratified.
James Millar and Fiona Choi make their marks more so apart than when together as the Baker and Baker’s Wife. There is a pitying outward anxiousness Millar apportions to the Baker which rather sets him up to putt a magnificent birdie with Act Two’s heartfelt No More, alongside seasoned Sondheim artist John O’May’s warmly wizard-like Mysterious Man.
A vocally engaging Choi unfurls bountiful riches in her insistent and busying Baker’s Wife, literally wearing the pants in the marriage and later finding herself lost in the woods of desire with Cinderella’s Prince.
That dalliance becomes one of several performance highlights in which Choi’s deliciously succumbing and post-passion pondering is electrifying in Any Moment / Moments in the Woods.
Cherine Peck unleashes powerful substance from a bubbling cauldron within as the Witch, giving Act One’s Stay With Me generous imploring affectation and contrasting later with enlightened tenderness in Act Two’s Witch’s Lament.
Anthony Craig fills the shoes of young Jack endearingly as he matures along the journey, his Milky White an adorable trundling part of the performance with him, and Lily Baulderstone is a cheery pocket-sized but feisty and fabulous skipping light beam as Red Riding Hood.
Cinderella is sweetly sung by Ava Madon, making of her a convincing beauty as she turns her back on the Prince. Caitlin Spears brings high operatic class to an unsurprisingly emotionally disturbed Rapunzel.
As her Prince, Raphael Wong is handsomely burnished and resonant of voice and at one with comic accoutrements, the pair doubling hilariously as Cinderella’s stepsisters Florinda and Lucinda.
Nick Simpson-Deeks is a perfectly smooth-voiced and eye-catching standout as the villainous Wolf and a leaping animated sparkle as Cinderella’s straying Prince. Simpson-Deeks and Wong are in their element and paired superbly for a performance gem as the two Princes vie for agony’s title in Act One’s Agony and Act Two’s Agony Reprise.
Jacqui Hoy is all heart and soul as Jack’s Mother, and Jackie Rees deftly slips into three smaller roles as Cinderella’s Stepmother, Granny and the Giant.
Departing from the norm of an onstage Narrator, Hillman herself narrates unseen for the most part, until her fate is sealed by the Giant, a smart idea that unsettles the interface of story, reality and direction.
Far more than the sum of all its parts, Into The Woods is an illuminating theatrical work of art that glints with optimism ahead when, from whoever or whatever’s making, despair and tragedy fall upon us. And optimism is the only way forward
Into The Woods
Flat Floor Pavilion – Meat Market, 5 Blackwood Street, North Melbourne
Performance: Thursday 20 January 2022
Season continues to Saturday 23 January 2022
For more information, visit: www.watchthis.net.au for details.
Image: Cherine Peck as the Witch – photo by Jodie Hutchinson
Review: Paul Selar