Review: INTO THE WOODS at ARTS Theatre

Everybody loves Sondheim.

By: Sep. 23, 2022
Review: INTO THE WOODS at ARTS Theatre
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Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Thursday 22nd September 2022.

The Gilbert and Sullivan Society of South Australia has turned to Stephen Sondheim's multi-award-winning 1987 hit, Into the Woods, for its latest production. Sondheim needs no introduction, nor, in fact, should this musical, which has been performed here many times over the years, and was also made into a film in 2014. The original Broadway production, with Bernadette Peters as the Witch, can also be found on video.

The book, by James Lapine, brings together a number of well-known fairytales by The Brothers Grimm, reverting to their more gruesome, cautionary tale versions. Sondheim, interestingly, borrows from Wagner in the use of small, recurring leitmotifs on which the very complex music is built.

The production is directed by Gordon Combes, with musical direction by Jillian Gulliver and choreography by Celeste Barone. Combining a company with a history in light opera and, more recently, musicals that also demand very skilled singers, added to the fact that everybody in musical theatre wants to be in a show by Sondheim, it is no surprise that they have found a strong and very capable cast.

The musical begins with The Narrator, played by James McCluskey Garcia, who also doubles as The Mysterious Man, introducing the characters, after wandering in through the audience, chatting on the way. I found this rather incongruous and would have preferred to go straight into the production. It was repeated after the interval. He gives a solid performance in each of his roles, linking the scenes and moving the action forward.

The characters, in turn, tell us their dearest wishes, the impetus for much of the action in the first act. Cinderella wishes to go to the King's festival, Jack wishes his best friend, the cow, Milky White, would give milk, and The Baker and his Wife wish for a child. Be careful what you wish for! Through them, we are introduced to Cinderella's stepmother and two stepsisters, Jack's mother, Little Red Riding Hood, and The Witch. They all, then, go Into the Woods, to the title song.

Jack meets The Mysterious Man, Red meets the Wolf, The Baker is about to follow Red for her cape as red as blood when his wife catches up to him, the Witch runs off to visit Rapunzel, the Baker sees Jack with the cow as white as milk, swapping the cow for the beans stolen from the Witch by Jack's father, a Prince sees the Witch calling on Rapunzel, and falls for her, another Prince falls for Cinderella, the stepmother and stepsisters come off badly, Jack steals from the Giant, and slays him, and so it goes on, as others are introduced and all of those on their quests are drawn together. The Witch also gets her wish, becoming young and beautiful again.

The first act finishes with the usual, expected, "happy ever after", but it doesn't end there. There are consequences for their actions, and so to the second act, where they all have new wishes, and then everything goes downhill when The Giant's wife seeks her revenge for the death of her husband. "Once Upon a Time... Later." By the end of the evening, the land is in ruins and there are almost as many dead as in a Shakespearean tragedy.

With such a large cast, most of whom are principals, onstage for the whole performance, commenting at length on each performer is impractical, if a review is to be published in a reasonable time. To begin, the casting is very even, with not a single weak link. More, the interactions, and the group dynamics, are extremely well balanced. Every one of the performers has a fully developed characterisation

There is Megan Humphries with a slightly more subtle approach to the Witch, the warmth between Jared Frost
and Catherine Breugelmans, as the Baker and his Wife, the gentleness of the frustrated mother and her simpleton son, with Buddy Munro-Dawson and Deborah Caddy as Jack and his Mother, the soul-searching of Cinderella, played by Emily Morris, the screaming nervous breakdown of Cassidy Gaiter as Rapunzel, Nadine Wood, Ryan Ricci, Grace Frost, and Dharini Rarjaramanan as Cinderella's unpleasant family, Liliana Carletti as the gluttonous Red Ridinghood, and Chad Crittle and Sam Mannix, who also plays the greedy wolf, as the two self-centred and inconstant princes, as well as several minor roles, played well by Karen Muller, Steve Lewis, Danielle Greaves, and Alieysha Nicholls. Importantly, aside from being wonderful in their individual characters, they all work tightly together as a very fine ensemble.

One could go on for pages, but the review has to get out there where it can be read. There is, of course, a simple way to find out how good each of the performers is, and how good the production is overall, and that is to buy tickets.

Gordon Combes's set was largely realised by the use of large screens, with projections, by Matt Ralph, for the numerous locations, complementing the multilevel physical structures. It was most impressive, as were the costumes by Combes and Anne Humphries.

Jillian Gulliver's excellent orchestra also deserves a pat on the back, and Celeste Barone's choreography adds to the energy of the production.

The one, very serious problem, was the lighting. Almost every cue was late, with performers initially in shadow, or complete darkness, then the lighting gradually increasing until they were finally visible. It was particularly noticeable with Jack and his Mother, upstage centre, appearing as silhouettes in front of the projection of their cottage. Anything backlit needs plenty of light from the front to show faces. Those on the raised part of the set at the rear were often poorly lit, too, partly because the follow spots cannot light that area, and when the whole stage was lit for full-cast moments, there were still parts in shadow. There were times when the use of the theatre's third follow spot might have helped. There will, hopefully, be a tech run between performances to address this.

The opening night audience was highly enthusiastic with its applause and cheering, indicating the success of the production. Tickets are sure to be in short supply as word spreads, so book quickly, or miss out.

Photography, Tim Bates.