My theory about Sondheim shows is they’re the ballet of musical theatre – extremely technical but, done well, they seem effortless and are very easy to watch. This is certainly the case for Into the Woods, and Canberra’s Dramatic Productions company, in association with the Australian National University (ANU) School of Music, has risen to the challenge. Visionary director Richard Block has created a production that allows some of Canberra’s most talented performers to really show what they can do.
Into the Woods was full of strong performances from a cast who seemed to enjoy playing their characters as much as the audience enjoyed watching them. The Baker (Grant Pegg) and the Baker’s Wife (Veronica Thwaites-Brown) put their classical training to good use in these vocally demanding roles, paired this with superb characterisation. Pegg has fantastic comedic timing, making the whole audience laugh when he decided to pick up the cow prop in a particularly flustered moment. Thwaites-Brown has a knack for playing loving, strong-willed women (perfect for this role), having previously appeared in the Canberra area as Maria in The Sound of Music and Caroline Neville in Titanic – the musical.
Other outstanding performances included the Witch (Kelly Roberts) who conveyed cheeky self-interest from behind a mask that covered half her face in the first act, and fabulous vanity in the second act when her physical beauty was revealed. Jack (Pippin Carroll) was charmingly dopey, while Little Red Riding Hood (Siân Harrington) masterfully chewed bread and sang on key without choking. Cinderella’s Prince (Alexander Clubb) and Rapunzel’s Prince (Anthony Simeonovic) portrayed their characters’ arrogance with wit and style. Clubb was also excellent as the Wolf, seducing Little Red Riding Hood while revealing his evil intensions to the audience.
The professionalism and talent of the cast was exemplified by their ability to move confidently in their stunning costumes borrowed from Victorian Opera. I particularly loved the Step Mother (Miriam Miley-Read) and her daughters Florinda (Jessica Baker) and Lucinda (Kitty McGarry), whose glitzy but slightly gaudy attire perfectly matched their deportment. The detail and artistry in the outfits was a treat for the eyes, although some ensembles looked a little incomplete. Cinderella (Philippa Murphy) for example, while remarkably beautiful with a voice to match, didn’t look glamorous enough. She needed some sparkly accessories or perhaps a more elaborate hairstyle.
The set, also borrowed from Victorian Opera, created a dynamic space for the cast to work in, with three levels separated by stairs. Huge golden trees, squeezed into the smaller stage at Gungahlin College Theatre with much effort and care, bordered the scene and drew the audience ‘into the woods’. Rapunzel’s (Taylor Kunkel) tower was a highlight, with the vines entwining it forming a skeletal hand. Props, although minimal, were well used. The cast played upon the rigidity and slightly small proportions of the cow (borrowed from Melbourne Theatre Company) and the Baker’s Wife wore Rapunzel’s hair as a scarf and danced around her husband with it. To the credit of stage manager Samantha Cain and Assistant Stage Manager John Nicholls, everything appeared to happen exactly as it was supposed to.
Lighting and sound for this show were very slick. The lighting drew the audience’s attention between different scenes as the show moved quickly and simultaneously between each character’s story. The sound was perfectly balanced – all cast members and the orchestra were clearly heard without damaging your eardrums.
Director Richard Block brought out the sassy, tongue-in-cheek humour and thought-provoking meaning of the show. His strong understanding of it was evident. It was a highly entertaining romp that made three hours fly by.
‘I fell in love with the show years ago. The lyrics, the writing, is all just so clever and every time you listen to it you discover something new,’ Block said.
Unlike the movie, Block did not cut any characters or songs, which is perhaps why his version was so much more fun to watch. Minor characters such as the Mysterious Man (Tony Falla), helped the audience understand the complexity of other characters. Although based on fairytales, Into the Woods does not simply portray good versus evil. The distinction between protagonist and antagonist is blurred – the Baker and his Wife seem like nice people, but they take questionable actions in their desperation to have a baby. And the story does not end when everyone gets what they want – Act Two is all about what happens after that, a distinction that was lost in the movie.
‘The principles and the morals that Sondheim wanted to get across just don’t come through [in the movie],’ Block said.
‘We’ve presented it just as Sondheim would have wanted it’.
This rings true for Damien Slingsby’s musical direction too. Everyone in the cast tackled Sondheim’s challenging score with confidence. They knew their parts so well that having the musical director and orchestra backstage instead of in front of them in an orchestra pit was not an issue. Slingsby was able to watch the action on a monitor, and the orchestra and cast kept perfect timing throughout show.
Kathryn Jones’ solid choreography was well executed by the cast. The two main dance numbers at the end of each scene were appropriate for the show and delightfully neat, with every cast member moving in time and in line.
Overall it was an outstanding production of an intriguing tale with high quality singing and costumes, clever direction and a good dash of humour.