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Into the Woods review (Arts Centre Melbourne)

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If opera companies are going to regularly program musical theatre (and given the close relationship between the two art forms, it seems appropriate that they should), then, for now, Sondheim should probably be at the top of the list. Rodgers and Hammerstein and Bernstein have their place, but it’s Sondheim who has been the leading figure in innovation in musical theatre over the last 50 years. Audiences should be exposed to the work of a composer and lyricist who has, more consistently than any other, combined intelligent, heart-felt storytelling with scores as sophisticated as anything written for opera during his lifetime.

Into the Woods is one of his most successful and broadly-loved works, created with book writer James Lapine. The musical, which draws together various fairy tales to explore the reality and consequences of “happily ever afters”, premiered on Broadway in 1987, and is being turned into a film by Disney (starring Meryl Streep), due for release at the end of this year. In Sondheim’s first act, he follows Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (of the beanstalk) and his own creations (the Baker, his wife and a maternal witch) into the woods as they seek what they wish for. By the end of the first act, everyone has got what it is they wanted, and things seem like they’ll be wrapped up. But Sondheim takes us back to the fantastical kingdom for the second act, to reveal the consequences of all they did in the first.

Director Stuart Maunder ensures all the laughs build and land in the broad farce of the first act, and then draws the performances back to a place of quiet, emotional truth, as the devastation of the second act takes hold.

Victorian Opera has assembled a “dream cast” of musical theatre performances for the second production in its “Sondheim trilogy” (after last year’s Sunday in the Park with George). Queenie van de Zandt leads an ensemble which is made up of the best of the best, in roles that fit every performer like a glove. Even the actors with the smallest roles are at the top of their game (e.g. musical theatre veteran Melissa Langton as Jack’s Mother and rising star Elise McCann as Florinda).

As the baker and his wife (the two characters who are really just a contemporary couple in a fantastical world), David Harris and Christina O’Neill are in great form and conjure plenty of chemistry. Harris is particularly strong in the second act, whereas O’Neill wins laughs the whole way through and delivers one of the best vocal performances.

Van de Zandt’s Witch is really the star of the show. With rich, full-bodied vocals, she’s taken a gift of a role, explored its every possibility, and created a performance that’s constantly informed by the character’s longing and frustration with the world she’s landed in. It’s disappointing that she missed a few musical cues on opening night, but considering the gravitas of her performance, they’re fairly easily forgiven. And while Adam Gardiner’s set and Harriet Oxley’s costumes are generally effective and evocative given clear budget restraints, Oxley’s “glamorous” second act costume for the Witch is anything but.

Lucy Maunder is perfectly cast as Cinderella, bringing the character’s poise, integrity and angelic vocals to the fore. Josie Lane and Rowan Witt also both impress as Little Red and Jack – two younger characters who land at completely opposite ends of the spectrum.

In the pit, conductor Benjamin Northey leads Orchestra Victoria through a spritely and colourful rendition of the score, matched by the actors on stage, who deliver consistent vocal performances. The opening scene — during which Sondheim deals with the overlapping exposition of four separate stories in little over ten minutes — is a particular musical highlight.

There’s one difficulty that several cast members face – the original Broadway production of Into the Woods has been available on video or DVD for more than 20 years, and many, many musical theatre fans are intimately acquainted with it. Few musicals have “definitive” productions, but there probably is one that exists here. You can clearly see what choices the actors in VO’s version are making to differentiate their performances from the original Broadway cast (I think it’s safe to assume everybody in the cast would have seen the filmed version at least once). When you vividly remember the choices the Broadway cast made (as I, and countless other Sondheim nuts do), there are moments of delight when somebody steps away from those interpretations and finds something fresh. But when they make a choice that simply wasn’t as successful as what you’ve seen before, there’s a small moment of disappointment. Comparisons are rarely useful in art, but there’s a considerable legacy now looming over every production of Into the Woods.

Into the Woods mightn’t be as accessible as Opera Australia’s The King and I (although it is one of Sondheim’s most accessible works), but it has a hell of a lot more to say. There are only seven performances left, and very few tickets available. This is how opera companies should be staging musicals.

Into the Woods is at the Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne until 26 July. Featured image by Jeff Busby.

2 responses to “Into the Woods review (Arts Centre Melbourne)

  1. I avoided reading any reviews before seeing this film, so I’d have no expectations or prejudices. And in the opening moments, I thought I’d been rewarded. This was clearly nothing typical from Hollywood. The characters in period dress, singing their dialog, and the surprise of seeing Tracey Uhlman! I was delighted to see her attached to this project. It bode well! The camera focused on the actors, and not the CGI. Since I knew nothing of the story, I wondered if it would be another LES MISERABLES. But as it unfolded, the “sing-song” lyrics that I hoped would evolve into grand musical numbers got a bit tiresome, and a slow leak began to hiss from my enthusiasm. It needed more…something. OK, so we’ve been introduced to childhood fairy tale themes, and maybe they’re going to weave them together somehow. Well they attempted to, but not in an imaginative way. Merle Streep as the witch. I thought there might have been a dash of Margaret Hamilton in her initial appearance, but no…Streep was taking it elsewhere. The first glimmer of genuine music came with Johnny Depp as The Big Bad Wolf. Cheesy makeup, but I can overlook that, the scene still works. I thought Chris Pine as the Prince was the stand-out performance. My guess is that this characterization is what the screenwriters had in mind for the entire project…funny, hammy, over the top, but enjoyable. And consistent. But the other characters, with their occasional surprisingly bad dialog, never attained it. Streep’s performance became irritating. The other characters bounced between light comedy and out-of-place drama. I gave up any hope of this being an actual musical, and over half-way through, the sing-songy dialog ceased all together, for no apparent reason. It was like the assistant director took over while the big guy went to lunch. Eventually, we the audience stumbled out of a forest of confusion, and see what looks like the end of the story. I resisted looking at my watch the whole time, and thought, well that wasn’t bad, but…wrong. The story plunged back into an irritating forest of heavy-handed seriousness, with thorns of what again attempted to be musical dialog. I had had enough. This could have been spin on the PRINCESS BRIDE, but it got LOST (somewhere) IN TRANSLATION. On the plus side, I was impressed that this thing got the green light from an industry that loves formulaic stories that at least promise to get production costs back. I hope they will with this one. Thirty minutes too long, and btw…Stephen Sondheim? Really?

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