BWW Review: INTO THE WOODS at Chateau Neuf, Oslo

BWW Review: INTO THE WOODS at Chateau Neuf, Oslo

Theatre Neuf is a nonprofit theatrical organization. It uses both professional and non-professional performers and musicians. Two of its members (Auroa Nosset and Marianne Lindbeck) had the idea to produce a big musical with the aid of this organization, and they chose INTO THE WOODS, a musical regarded by many as one of the most complicated scores in the musical theatre canon.

Written by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, INTO THE WOODS is a mash up of several Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault fairy tales, exploring the consequences of the characters' wishes and quests, including Cinderella (Natalie Grøndahl Tangen) who is wishing for her Prince (Jonas Navarsete), Little Red Ridinghood (Tone Ollestad) and meeting the sexy girl-eating Wolf (Christian Henrik Curcan Sørbye), Jack and the Beanstalk (Kasper Nilsson) who is fooled into selling his cow for beans - his gateway-drug to richness and gluttony, the opera-singing psycho-soprano Rapunzel (Karoline Haavie Strøsrud) longing for a better life with her Prince (Kevin Strøm), all centered around the Witch (Anette Sissener Amundsen) and the Baker (Philippe Schneider) and his Wife (Stina Kastet) as they quest to begin a family. Their interaction with the witch, who sets them on a quest for items necessary to lift a curse she placed on them, unites all the characters as they meet up in the woods.

BWW Review: INTO THE WOODS at Chateau Neuf, OsloINTO THE WOODS is by many regarded as one of Sondheim's best works, and I agree to a certain extent. It is definitely one of his more accessible musicals for audiences not accustomed to his writing style. That is not to say that the show is insubstantial. It predicates existential questions. Can we ever get truly satisfied with our lives, or will we forever yearn for more? Is it ever okay to lie to achieve our goals? What happens with us when our wishes come true? There is much richness In Lapine's book, but it is also very convoluted, juggles too many plot strands and rarely allows the score room to breathe. The musical satirizes morality tales, introduces us to what appears to be rather one-dimensional fairytale-characters who becomes more multifaceted as the story progresses, always walking a fine line between comedy and tragedy.

Director Bjørn Birch has amplified the comedy aspects of the Lapine's book, making the characters self-referential in how they deliver the dialogue and move on stage. This works well for the characters who are, in essence, parodies, but for the ones who are more natural in tone this can be a bit of a struggle, and as act two progressed I would have wished for the ensemble to move away from the parody and into a more serious tone at an earlier stage. But, with that said, he has presented a truly charming and enjoyable version of INTO THE WOODS.

I would have liked to se more dance and movement on stage though. Gry-Anita Solheim's choreography was a very welcomed addition during "Ever After" and the finale.

BWW Review: INTO THE WOODS at Chateau Neuf, Oslo

Petra Gjørvad's inventive and colorful costume designs push comical aspects even further. The theme for Live Becke Knudsen's and Marte Andersen's hair and Make-up department seems to have been "the bigger the better" which produces hysterical results.

BWW Review: INTO THE WOODS at Chateau Neuf, OsloThe baker and his wife are the central characters in the show. Philippe Schneider and Stina Kastet are great fun at the center of it all. The ponderous machinery of the plot doesn't give the two of them much time to establish a heart to the central conflict of the story, but they do have moments where the connection becomes genuine. "It Takes Two" is such a moment. It is well sung and acted by both. As individuals they get their place to shine as well. Kastet's "Moments in the Woods" is one of the highlights of act two, as is Schneider's "No More" which he shares with Espen Sigurdsen (Mysterious Man). A heartfelt duet.

Natalie Grøndahl Tangen gives a warm and solid Cinderella. Her singing is pure and natural, as well is her acting. She is determined to get her prince, and is a welcome contrast to the more farcical acting-styles in the show.

BWW Review: INTO THE WOODS at Chateau Neuf, OsloI did have some reservations about Tone Ollestad's portrayal of Little Red Ridinghood. She sings the part well but I found her attitude towards the other characters to be a little off-putting. I was yearning to see a warmer side to the character and not only rudeness. Especially towards the wolf during "Hello Little Girl." I really wanted to see at least a tiny fascination so that the lyrics she sings during "I know Things Now" have more meaning.

In this production no actor does double-duty so, the wolf is exploited to great effect, and appears also in scenes where he normally wouldn't be. Played by Christian Henrik Curcan Sørbye, the wolf is a leather-clad and sexy toughguy, but after he is skinned he appears at certain times skinnless, with all veins and muscels showing. Great addition.

Kasper Nilsson's messy haired Jack, is the most naïve character in the piece, getting fooled to sell his cow for beans. The beans give him the wealth, but all he wanted was to buy his cow back. So he gets addicted to wealth. He is a broken person by consumption. He acts the part well and his "Giants in the Sky" is one of Sondheim's most beautiful melodies, and Mr. Nilsson does the song justice. Jack's mother, played by Margarita Holm was amusingly squawky.

The princes are deliciously funny. Visually they look like a cross between Elvis and Liberace. Their pants leave little to the imagination. They both chew up the scenery every chance they get. Jonas Navarsete, as Cinderella's Prince, has a strong operatic voice, in contrast to the more pop-sounding Rapunzel's prince, played by Kevin Strøm. I found this to be a fine combination. Especially Strøm has fantastic comedic timing.

BWW Review: INTO THE WOODS at Chateau Neuf, OsloAnette Sissener Amundsen as The Witch is truly a revelation. From the moment she steps on stage she commands the attention of the audience. Her ability to transform not only her physical appearance but also her demeanor when she becomes young and beautiful is a treat to both see and listen to. Her voice is marvelous, and I loved her rendition of both "Last Midnight" and "Children Will Listen". She can distort her voice and belt when it is needed and still sound soft and natural at the next moment. You feel for her also. She was only trying to be a good mother.

The witches "child", Karoline Haavie Strømsrud, has such a beautiful strong soprano voice as Rapunzel, so I was very glad to see that the duet "Our Little World" (from the London production) was included here. Sadly they used shortest version which doesn't include my favorite lyric "If what was growing was only her hair and not her, that's what I'd prefer", but I guess not all wishes come true.

BWW Review: INTO THE WOODS at Chateau Neuf, Oslo

Even the minor parts get their place to shine. Sondre Tarud, as The Stewart, manages to steal almost every scene he is in. The Wicked stepfamily, played Marianne Lindbeck, Trine Eide Schjølberg and Aurora Nossen are truly nasty and resemble Alexis Carrington and a pair of Paris Hilton-clones on a bad-hair day. I loved the fact that when everyone became more and more frightened by the approaching giant, the blind sisters were using their fans faster and faster. A great gag. I was not thrilled by the choice of having the giant played by an actor on stage. Although her voice was booming and scary I think it works better having the actor offstage, seeing only a shadow. I felt the menace of the giant got lost along the way. I loved Thora Soot's grandmother. She was morbidly funny and sadistic, when she gutted the Wolf with his intestines hanging out. The Narrator, played by Trond Isaksen, was overly engergetic. He started of clean cut, but had leafs and branches growing out in all places by the time his part ended. He was a little hasty in narrating during applause, and since the plot is so fast paced that was a little unfortunate.

This production has kept Jonathan Tunick's original orchestrations, which is a rarity in Norway. The 14-piece orchestra, led by Joachim Orseth, played very well and sounded good, although I found it a puzzling that they were placed upstage and not in the orchestra pit, since acoustic sound would be a better solution for the Sound Department, and also that conductor could have communicated more with the performers by communicating with them­. There were some musical cues that got lost here and there. Some of the ensemble-numbers, such as "Ever after", "Your Fault" was played way to fast. It may have been impressive that the actors are able to sing in that speed but the words got muffled. Especially since it is an amphitheater doing sound-design is hard enough. In addition there was the lack of diction by some of the performers, which made some of the dialogue hard to follow.

BWW Review: INTO THE WOODS at Chateau Neuf, Oslo

The stage does not really have a proscenium but consists of a large circular floor and ceiling with a walkway-bridge and a few pillars. The scenic design by Eline Dybfest and Aurora Nossen is simple, inventive and effective, consisting of tall one-dimensional trees painted to look like classical fairytale illustrations. Apart from Rapunzel's tower, which is rolled out on to the bridge, and the bed in grandmother's house, most of the "woods-effect" is done by Marita Storheim's lighting design.

There are plenty of stand out moments in INTO THE WOODS, and I urge people to see it. It has a limited run and ends on June 17.

All photos by Lillian Julsvik

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