Anyone savvy in the music theatre world understands the difficulties involved in executing a Stephen Sondheim work and Into the Woods is no exception. Often considered difficult due to a complex score full of syncopated rhythms and confusing timing, Into the Woods is often underestimated by amateur theatre groups and so regularly makes the rounds in community theatre. However, ASPECT has done a brilliant job with such a difficult musical and they have presented a very finished and tight production of Sondheim’s piece.
Overall, the production is fantastic and has come together extremely well and in my opinion, the technical elements of ASPECT’s slick interpretation of Into the Woods are what really make it stand out. Costumes by Margot Sephton are brilliant. Every piece of clothing on the stage fits in beautifully and they all look very well made. Often, costumes can look mismatched and not run together with each other well, but this problem has been completely avoided by Sephton and it appears that she has a very strong grasp of what is needed to make costumes cohesive and effective to aid the narrative of the musical. Lighting was also brilliant and kudos must go to Matt Hemley for the design and operation. Character’s deaths (spoiler alert!!) were complemented very effectively by strong lighting cues and this served to immerse the audience even more into the ‘fairytale world’ of the show. Sound is often an issue for community theatre but ASPECT did not have one problem with this at all which is a credit to Ashleigh Boyce and Kyle Smith on Sound operation and design. Sets were also fantastic and well-made- they suited the production very well and added to the dark, eerie nature that ‘The Woods’ should possess.
Direction of this production was good. Jane Court and Dean Mitrousis did an admirable job of pulling the cast together but it appeared more that the individual cast members were in control of their characters and choices throughout the show. This is not meant to be a criticism of the direction, but merely a reflection on the very high skill level of the cast. Furthermore, vocally, the cast was very strong. Harmonies were very clean and vocal dynamic was used well to add to the feeling of the show. As vocal coach, Lucy Nicholson should be proud of the work the cast has done. As mentioned before, Into the Woods is an extremely difficult score to sing and the cast handled it masterfully. Furthermore, congratulations should also be offered to the orchestra under the clearly expert hand of Music Director, Emma McGeorge. Music was always in time and accompanied the cast well. Choreography was also a very good element of this production. The cast executed the simple yet effective movements very strongly and it was very tight- no one was out of time and it catered to a wide range of skill level. The choice to add contemporary choreography to the musical for the wood nymphs as chorus was very interesting and executed well. This gave the show an eerie feeling which worked well and added to the ‘otherworldly’ nature of the production. Keir Jasper as choreographer should be commended for his creative brain.
As for the performances of the cast, there was not one weak link. This musical is notorious for having many leads and a confusing amount of characters but all were handled very well and suitably. Although all the leads were great, some highlights from the cast were Omar Moustafa as The Baker, Shelley Dunlop as The Witch (who delivered beautifully haunting renditions of ‘The Witches Lament/Children Will Listen’) and Saskia Penn and Sophie Young as Lucinda and Florinda (the Wicked Stepsisters). All delivered strong performances that developed their own character’s stories extremely well and added greatly to the quality of the musical. However, it would be remiss of me not to mention some real stand-outs of the show who were nothing short of brilliant in their portrayals of lead characters. Jacqui Moore as The Baker’s Wife was absolutely beautiful. Her comedic timing was near perfect and she demonstrated her vocal prowess masterfully. Alexandria Avery as Jack’s Mother was a surprising highlight for me as well. Quite often, although this role is very important to the narrative to the story Jack’s Mother is overlooked in amateur productions. Avery, however, made the role her own and always drew a laugh when she came on the stage without upstaging. She was also one of the few leads who was able to keep her character accent continuing without breaking for the whole show. Brooke Cowley as Cinderella was also a stand out. ‘No One is Alone’ is one of my favourite songs and she more than did it justice with beautiful vocal tone and expert, subtle character choices. I have only one small qualm with the performances from the cast. The choice to split the Narrator in half and give it to two people was an interesting one but I do not think it aided the development of the show. Roisin O’Neill and James Dale did a commendable job as the Narrators but often it felt like they were overacting and upstaging the performances of the other cast members during their moments to shine. Attention was drawn away from pivotal scenes as the Narrators tried to take the spotlight with unnecessary movement and extreme facial expressions which I don’t believe is what the show or character called for. That being said, the audience still benefitted from their explanation of the goings-on of the musical.
ASPECT should be very proud of the slick and clean production they have pulled together and they should be commended on a different, yet very good interpretation of Sondheim’s Into the Woods that definitely gives the musical the justice it deserves from a strong community theatre group.