Following their work on the Pulitzer Prize Award-winning Sunday in the Park with George, James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim continued their collaboration with Into the Woods, a show that arrived on Broadway in 1987 and remains one of Sondheim’s most popular works. In 2014, Rob Marshall directed a Disney-backed film version with an all-star cast including Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden and Johnny Depp.
Producers Jordan and Laura May Vassallo chose Into the Woods to launch their new independent theatre company, Bloom Creative Productions, this week at Chatswood’s Concourse Concert Hall. This inaugural production for Bloom is a concert version of Lapine’s and Sondheim’s musical that stars several performers regularly seen on Australia’s professional stages.
Into the Woods takes several characters from Brothers Grimm fairy tales (including Cinderella, Jack and the beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood) and weaves their stories together with two new characters, the Baker (Nat Jobe) and his wife (Katie McKee). As is typically the case with fairy tales, it begins with its protagonists sharing what it is they wish for in life and progresses to a realisation of those dreams.
But the rug is ripped from beneath the characters and they’re suddenly forced to band together in a fight for their lives – and many don’t survive. They’re forced to look at themselves and each other; to understand the importance of community and the greater good, sacrifice and responsibility; and to learn what fundamentally matters in life. Into the Woods isn’t typical fairy tale fodder; it’s musically and thematically sophisticated and remains a germane cautionary tale on the ways of the world.
Taking on this piece is an ambitious exercise for a well-established company, let alone producers acting in that capacity for the first time. The good news is that this staging of Into the Woods is a strong introduction for Bloom Creative Productions into Sydney’s independent theatre scene. Directed by Jordan Vassallo, it foregrounds Sondheim’s wonderful and challenging score (well reproduced here by Musical Director Peter Hayward and his 15-piece orchestra) and its first-class cast. Neil Shotter’s set is simple but effective, Audrey Currie’s costumes ensure every character is instantly identifiable, while Sean Clarke’s excellent lighting plays a significant role in evoking a sense of magic.
But it’s the high calibre of the performers assembled that makes Into the Woods such a success here. As narrator and the Mysterious Man, Wayne Scott Kermond is the consummate showman. Nat Jobe delivers a gentle and nuanced portrayal of The Baker, culminating in a moving performance of ‘No More’, while Katie McKee is similarly well cast as The Baker’s Wife, who longs to have a child. Matthew Predny conveys a strong sense of Jack’s youth and naivety, while Michele Lansdown entertains as his protective but tough mother. Daniella Mirels is animated and vocally impressive as Little Red, and Siobhan Clifford seizes her fleeting opportunities to showcase her sweet soprano as Rapunzel.
Elisa Colla is in fine voice as Cinderella, making ‘No One is Alone’ one of the evening’s highlights. She is perfectly cast as the kind and good-natured young princess who discovers that what she wished for isn’t actually what she wants. As Cinderella’s wicked stepmother, Prudence Holloway injects into her portrayal the right dose of spite and insincere charm. And Haydan Hawkins and Joshua Firman both bring solid baritones and comedy chops to their performances as the show’s two extremely-flawed princes, receiving a great audience response for an amusing ‘Agony’.
Of course, problems can always arrive at the eleventh hour of a production and, on opening night, Laura Murphy was left without a voice. It meant that while she appeared on stage in the pivotal role of the Witch, Brittanie Shipway provided the vocals. Those who’ve seen Murphy on stage in recent times (her credits include Muriel’s Wedding The Musical, You’re a good man, Charlie Brown and Cry Baby) will be well aware of her remarkable talent, so it is disappointing not being able to hear her take on the character. Fortunately, Shipway gives us a gutsy and seemingly effortless vocal performance throughout the evening, the high point of which is a tremendous rendition of ‘Last Midnight’.
Bloom Creative Productions’ Into the Woods is well staged, well performed and a terrifically enjoyable reminder of why the work remains popular three decades on from its debut performance. It’s also a promising indication of what’s ahead for this newly minted theatre company.