Once upon a time, Friedrich Nietszche said, “Without music, life would be a mistake.” Although it was eight decades after Nietszche’s death that Sondheim’s classic piece was born, there’s a good chance he was referring to songs of the calibre of those that form Into the woods’ lush score.
Into the woods is a work with which most music theatre fans the world over are familiar. And if that familiarity didn’t owe to a love of the original Broadway production, starring Bernadette Peters and Joanna Gleason, it may have come about as a result of the Disney-backed, Rob Marshall-helmed 2014 motion picture, which was both a critical and commercial success and took Sondheim’s work to a wider audience than ever before.
It’s of course not surprising then to see Into the woods return to the stage in 2015, this time at Penrith’s Q Theatre and produced by the team at Blacktown Theatre Company. In the year of its 15th anniversary, the BAC Team decided to tackle one of the most challenging musicals the company has taken on throughout that time, and to do so in a space of greater scale than that which has housed earlier BAC productions.
The effort that’s gone into making this a production of considerable scale, and something that tries to push boundaries for community theatre, is evident from the moment of walking into the auditorium. Instead of flats or canvasses creating the backdrop, BAC has opted for a cyclorama and projection technology to set the scene. Fortunately, these elements aren’t just used to create a static backdrop, but to move along the story and there’s some effective interaction between the a/v aspects and the performers.
What’s also impressive is the synchronisation between the a/v, the onstage action and the orchestra. Never does something fall off the wagon so that there are awkward moments between dialogue, an a/v event or the moment the orchestra launches into the next song. This was well done, and the production team deserves significant recognition for making these elements cohere so successfully with each other.
On stage, performers with a swag of stage credits and newcomers alike are tasked with bringing to life our favourite fairytale characters. There are some strong acting chops on display. From the moment he walks on stage, the narrator (Michael Robinson) is poised and exceptionally eloquent. His invitation into the fictional forest is hard to refuse! Patrick Forrest’s portrayal of Jack is just what it should be. His Jack is ignorant and slow-witted, but ultimately endearing. The baker (Paul Oscuro) is appropriately self-effacing and sympathetic. And Briony Burnes’ Little Red Riding Hood is one of the stand-out performances of the night. She is feisty and fiery, and showed good comic timing. Her portrayal was reminiscent of Lilla Crawford’s ‘Red’ in the Disney film. She successfully performed the role both in moments of dialogue and in song.
On the subject of vocal performances, the difficulty of Sondheim’s score cannot be underestimated. It requires powerful belting and impeccable breathing, and some painstaking articulation of the lyrics to ensure that the story isn’t lost in the often swift tempo of the music. There’s no arguing it has the ability to get the better some of the most accomplished vocalists in music theatre. Here, there were times when a number of the principal cast members ran into difficulty with some of the more challenging moments in the score. Fortunately, off vocal moments were countered by consistent believability in the portrayal of the characters. There was never doubt for a second that all cast members patently understood the meaning of each word to emerge from their mouths. There was strong conviction in the delivery of the dialogue and song lyrics, and never was there a sense of going through the motions.
Those to hit the best notes of the evening were Erin Bogart, an Australian Institute of Music graduate who took on music theatre’s second most adored witch. Her tone was easy and her musical moments conveyed with such clarity. Her biggest vocal achievement came during the prologue, as she explained her curse to the baker and his wife and set the challenge for its removal. Bogart showed tremendous skill in not missing a word, never once sounding out of breath, and never wavering in her portrayal of the character. It takes a performer of considerable ilk to pull that off. Additionally, Shannon Thomas’ soprano range was sweet and spot on for our favourite, longhaired damsel locked in a tower.
A fourteen-piece orchestra accompanied the performers, and did a wonderful job underscoring the action onstage. Musical director, Koren Beale, absolutely deserves a mention for the work done here. Also, the sound design for the production was excellent, with performers well amplified above the orchestra and additional sound effects well incorporated into various moments of the show.
The large Q Theatre space was well utilised, and it was great to see the absence of physical sets didn’t prevent performers making entrances and exits through sets. This was done here courtesy of carefully placed openings in the cyclorama. While it was also good to see entrances and exits and even some of the action played using offstage areas, perhaps choosing the scenes when this occurred more selectively may have heightened the impact of those moments.
In short, director Angela-Therese Hanna and her BAC team took on an enormous challenge and deserve commendation for what’s been achieved with Into the woods. Already, BAC’s alumni includes graduates of prestigious tertiary acting and music theatre programs, and it will hopefully continue to grow, as it moves beyond its fifteenth year, and keep trying to distinguishing itself through bold and innovative choices that will set them apart on the community theatre scene.