Stephen Sondheim had his 90th birthday this year; ten years ago, his 80th was being celebrated in London with a production of his fairy tale mash up Into The Woods. What made this production extra special was the outdoor setting in Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, the perfect venue for this musical. What better than to take the laptop into the garden on a balmy late summer evening and with the sun setting in time to the performance, sit back and pretend to be at the outdoor theatre itself?
If you don’t know the story of Into The Woods you certainly know the stories that James Lapine’s book weaves together, the tales of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood. Except you don’t, for these are no straightforward retellings and neither are there any happy ever afters. The stories are interlocked and rebuilt around a fifth narrative that of the Baker and his wife who long for a child. The Witch who has placed a curse on them (long story) will only remove it if the pair can gather together four items which are central to the narratives of the others – a golden slipper, a milky white cow, hair the colour of corn and a red cloak. Then she will be released from her own curse (another long story) and in turn grant the couple what they wish… and that’s just the first half. The whole is acted out in the imagination of the young narrator (Eddie Manning) – like many children he relishes some of the gorier aspects of the original stories – who has run away from home after having parent troubles. The relationship between children, parents and other family members is perhaps the central theme of the musical.
After coming to what seem like happy endings at the end of Act One, the second half extends the various narratives to see what happens next… and it isn’t good. Having got whatever they were after the characters do not find contentment. The Baker finds it difficult to love his child, Cinderella is bored at the palace and Rapunzel after years of being locked away cannot cope with her new won freedom and turns to drink. Worst of all Jack’s maraudings in the land of the giants has visited reprisals on the community in the form of the giant’s wife who wants vengeance. Even the witch released from her curse and transformed from withered crone into a sexy vamp cannot find inner peace. The tone of the second half of the show is much more sombre with many deaths occurring and lessons learned; it’s interesting that the school’s version of the musical removes the second half altogether. I can see why a number of commentators have found this part “preachy” but, of course, all good fairy stories have their morals so I can’t say I found this troubling.
The whole cast is marvellous, singing the intricate score and delivering Sondheim’s trademark superbly witty lyrics with confidence and gusto. There are star turns from Hannah Waddingham as the Witch and Jenna Russell as the Baker’s Wife who are the twin beating hearts of the show. Beverly Rudd is brilliant as an atypical (and not so little) Red Riding Hood; Helen Dalimore’s Cinderella also forgoes the usual muted portrayal and comes out fighting. One of the best numbers in the show is “Agony” and this is handled with aplomb by the strutting peacock princes Michael (“I was raised to be charming, not sincere”) Xavier and Simon (“Dwarfs are very upsetting”) Thomas. It is probably invidious singling out anyone from this 20 plus cast as it is a real ensemble show. And then there’s a fantastic nine-piece band who aren’t really visible but as far as I could make out were way up in the trees somewhere; at least that’s where leader Gareth Valentine emerges from at the curtain call.
The musical is spectacularly realised by director Timothy Sheader using some very clever devices such as green pop up umbrellas to form the beanstalk and an hilarious cottage bedroom scene where Red Riding Hood and Grandma are rescued from the Big Bad Wolf’s stomach. Rachel Canning’s puppets are stunning, particularly the giantess voiced by Judi Dench no less. A word of praise is also due to Mike Walker’s sound design. Quite apart from some excellent special effects his design ensures that not a word of Sondheim’s fast moving lyrics is lost; no mean feat in an outdoor setting.Soutra Gilmour’s magnificent set full of scaffolding, walkways and even what looks like a dangerously high tower framed by the trees and bushes of the Regent’s Park amphitheatre is an abiding image of this excellent and magical production.
Production photos by Catherine Ashmore
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