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.