*****

By Jessica Taurins

After two long long years, we finally may be seeing a resurgence in live performance in Melbourne. With venues and shows closed one week and open the next, and cast members dropping like flies due to the whole state of the world right now, it’s been quite difficult to find a show to see that doesn’t get postponed, or shuttered entirely.

One show that’s been so lucky to go ahead in 2022 is Watch This’ production of Into the Woods, a Stephen Sondheim classic that’s been reimagined countless times since it was written almost 40 years ago. Watch This are a company dedicated fully to Sondheim’s works, making this production all the more melancholy as its first showing after Sondheim’s passing in November 2021. Thankfully, the cast and crew of Into the Woods bring their splendid talent, as well as immense respect, to this rendition of the show, and dazzled the audience non-stop for the 3ish hour runtime.

Staged in the Meat Market, the first person deserving commendation in this production is set designer Sarah Tulloch. It can be hard to fill the empty walls and floor of the warehouse-like Meat Market venue, but Tulloch’s multiple stages and set pieces are gorgeously draped in plants and flowers, evoking the titular woods even before the show commences. The set design also allows little hidden moments just for each of the three sets of tiered seats spread about the stage. While sitting perpendicular to the stage allows for the best view of all the action, there are some moments (including an extremely saucy butt squeeze between the baker’s wife and the roguish bit-of-an-insincere-prick-with-a-great-bum Cinderella’s Prince (Nick Simpson-Deeks)) that are crafted carefully just for the side viewers, allowing everyone to feel like there’s some movement or element just for them.

Tulloch has also cleverly separated parts of the main stage by height, allowing for multiple characters to appear in multiple different locales onstage at once, something that Sondheim weaved wonderfully into the music and lyrics of his show. If we couldn’t imagine the baker (James Millar) and his wife (Fiona Choi) in their home, young Jack (of “and the Beanstalk” fame, played by Anthony Craig) and his mother (Jacqueline Hoy) at their farm, and sweet Cinderella (Ava Madon) with her despicable family in their home… well, that would destroy all immersion! With Tulloch’s set, these characters stand merely feet apart from one another but appear to be in totally different parts of the kingdom, allowing Sondheim’s witty lyricism space to shine without requiring anyone to run on or offstage.

Into the Woods’ lyrics could – and should – certainly be considered difficult. Sondheim’s writing creates quick staccato phrases alongside long, flowing lines, as well as intense emotional vulnerability alongside witty throwaway moments. One such song is “Your Fault”, a late-show song starring five different members of the cast, where the music gains speed as the song progresses, culminating in multiple characters breathlessly singing over one another. The cast’s performance of both this particular song, and of course all of Sondheim’s other musical masterpieces, really cements the actors as stunning examples of current Australian talent.

Though each performer has their own long long line of merits in this show, Cherine Peck, as the witch, stands out above them all. The witch is a major character – appearing front and centre on the program cover and everything! – and Peck absolutely blows every scene away, even if she’s not the focus. Her voice is beyond powerful, most evidenced in another late-show song “Last Midnight”, where Peck is given the opportunity to shake the rafters with her performance, which she most certainly does.

Others to highlight are Simpson-Deeks as Cinderella’s foppish prince, who flounces about the stage like he owns the place – and well, as future king of the kingdom, he kind of does. Simpson-Deeks also portrays the (uncomfortably) attractive Wolf in the first portion of the show, bringing a jointly powerful and silly physicality to both characters. Lily Baulderstone as Little Red Riding Hood grows from being a naive young girl to a crazy forest warrior, wearing wolf skins and brandishing a knife, but even from the beginning Baulderstone has immense courage as a performer. Her movements are emotional and exaggerated when required, and alternately soft and scared, as a young girl would be in a big dark forest. Of particular note, and perhaps helped by a huge floofy dress – courtesy of costume designer Jodi Hope – the line of Baulderstone’s body as she leans, hops, and tiptoes across the stage immensely elevates her performance and makes her every movement a moment to remember.

Lastly, this show is a real bastion of diversity. Looking at the 2014 movie version of Into the Woods (the most accessible version for most people to see), the cast are talented, yes, but almost exclusively white Hollywood stars. Watch This has pulled together a spectacular blend of performers, where race or size (or in one case, gender) don’t matter one bit. Raphael Wong performs both as Rapunzel’s Prince and one of Cinderella’s stepsisters – sometimes, most amusingly, as both of them in the one scene – and never once does he give his stepsister performance any less sincerity. A personal moment for me came from seeing Caitlin Spears as Rapunzel – as a larger woman myself it is often rare to see myself on stage, especially in professional performances. Seeing Spears on stage as her beautiful self with her angelic voice made me – and surely many others – feel included in the theatre, like one day maybe we could feel like princesses as well.

Watch This have pulled together a truly spectacular performance of Into the Woods, and I promise I’m not just saying that because I haven’t been to a live show in almost two years. My review tickets were unfortunately delayed due to an illness in the cast, so the show is nearly at its end, and may perhaps be over by the time this review is published, but Watch This are a company to follow. Their next show may be the same level of brilliance or may even go beyond, which is something I am so excited to see. Good luck to them, and good luck to the cast in continuing to live their live show dreams even in these difficult times.

Images: Jodie Hutchinson