REVIEW: Eamon Flack Strips Back Stephen Sondheim's INTO THE WOODS For An Intimate Australian Interpretation

One night only!

REVIEW: Tennessee Williams' SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER Is Presented With Simplicity At Ensemble Theatre

Thursday 23rd March 2023, 7:30pm, Belvoir St Theatre Surry Hills

Stephen Sondheim (Music and lyrics) and James Lapine's (Book) INTO THE WOODS Is given a small stage adaptation and an Australian voice at Belvoir St Theatre. Presented as a co-production between Belvoir St Theatre and Hayes Theatre Co, this new production is directed by Belvoir's Artistic Director, Eamon Flack.

REVIEW: Tennessee Williams' SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER Is Presented With Simplicity At Ensemble TheatreWhile many audiences will already be familiar with INTO THE WOODS, this work which made its Broadway debut in 1987 and was adapted for film by Disney in 2014, is a wonderful amalgam of the fairytales from The Brothers Grimm and traditional folk tales that many people in the western world grew up with though Sondheim and Lapine tap into the darker origins of the works that the likes of Disney movies choose to gloss over. INTO THE WOODS works on the notion that Little Red Ridinghood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel and Cinderella all lived in the same kingdom so their stories became intertwined during their necessary quests to achieve their 'wants'. The story, as told by the Narrator (Peter Carroll) hangs around the 'new' characters of a Baker (Justin Smith) and his wife (Esther Hannaford), a hard working couple that learn that the reason they can't conceive relates to the Witch (Tamsin Carroll) placing a curse on the Baker's father when she caught him stealing vegetables for his pregnant wife. In addition to demanding the baby when it was born, the spiteful witch also cursed the Baker's father, and his family, to infertility which she is willing to reverse provided they provide ingredients for a potion. As the Baker sets out into the woods to find the items, other journeys start as young Jack (Marty Alix) is sent by his mother (Lena Cruz) to sell his cow at the market, Little Red Ridinghood (Mo Lovegrove) is sent to deliver food to her grandmother, Cinderella (Shubshri Kandiah) later runs from a Prince (Tim Draxl) after a ball while another Prince (Andrew Coshan) gets sidetracked from helping when he hears Rapunzel (Stefanie Caccamo) singing in her tower. The stories come together to show that life rarely ever goes to plan, and even when you get your wish, will that fulfillment be the end and ensure happiness. It challenges morality and responsibility, both to self and society, while it challenges the stereotypes that have been established as the nice are never really nice but the honest are much more reliable.

REVIEW: Tennessee Williams' SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER Is Presented With Simplicity At Ensemble TheatreSet Designer Michael Hankin has kept the corner stage of Belvoir St Theatre relatively bare with a circular stepped podium housing a baby grand and upright piano. The walls are draped with sheers that hint at mirrored walls behind. While most of the story takes place within the woods, the various homes are represented by cardboard dolls houses, painted in solid colors which run as themes through the related residents costumes, designed by Micka Agosta. The design for the horse, Rapunzel's tower and Wolf disguised as granny are wonderfully inventive collaborations between Hankin and Agosta as they express ideas without major traditional set elements. While much of the costuming is kept simple, with an element of second hand and every day wear incorporated into he looks it was a bit disappointing that Agosta chose to draw on the Disney image of Cinderella in blue rather than referring to the source material that mentions "silver and gold, throw down on me" which was reinforced with Kandiah and Flack's choice in how Cinderella was played, ignoring the opportunity to give her a new strength.

REVIEW: Tennessee Williams' SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER Is Presented With Simplicity At Ensemble TheatreFor this production Eamon Flack has chosen to present many of the voices with Australian accents, and bizarrely, Eastern European for the Witch. With the work being so dependent on the words in both Sondheim's lyrics and Lapine's dialogue and much of the poetry anchored within the pronunciation of the words, using non-American accents does not always work. For skilled performers like Esther Hannaford, Justin Smith and Marty Alix, the accent is carefully balanced to capture the weight of the poetry while also ensuring they maintain their own voice and keep the lyrics and dialogue clear. Similarly, Draxl's Wolf and Cinderella's prince strikes a good balance between the English accents he adopts for the two lecherous lotharios while he ensures the comedy of the lines land squarely. Sadly, the weight of the pivotal role of the Witch is lost by the choice to have Tamsin Carroll present her with an Eastern European accent which wavers wildly between the Eastern European to Australian, American and also a hint of English. While somewhat 'on the nose' with regards to typecasting the ethnicity the greater insult is to what it does to Sondheim and Lapine's words with some lines unintelligible so anyone without a strong knowledge of the script would miss the impact of the lines.

REVIEW: Tennessee Williams' SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER Is Presented With Simplicity At Ensemble TheatreWhile some of the choices feel like the performer is seeking to emulate the well known cast recordings, there are some refreshing new takes on the characters which land beautifully. As the Baker's Wife, Esther Hannaford is a dream. She understands the character and ensures that everything she does, from the smallest gesture to the choice in how she sings a line is informed by the connection to the character and their underlying motivations, presenting the character with a truth and sincerity no matter how bizarre the plot becomes. Hannaford is perfectly matched with Justin Smith as the Baker. Similarly, he understands the character and balances the absurdity of the situations with a goofy self-belief that highlights that the Baker really shouldn't be left out in the woods alone and really does need his smart wife with him. Marty Alix's brilliant comic timing and ability to appear naieve and sincere also makes them a delight to watch as they ensure the put their own mark on the character. Taking on the two roles of Cinderella's Prince and the Wolf, Tim Draxl is perfect and both characters have fabulous feature songs to showcase Draxl's magical voice along with his camp charm that is informed with an understanding that both characters know the games they are playing are wrong but they just can't help themselves, their desires overpower any sense. Having Peter Carroll as the Mysterious Man and the Narrator is an absolute treat as he understands the comedy of the role with an awareness of the ridiculousness that the audience is supposed to believe the flurry of confetti he tosses is supposed to be a magical disappearing act.

REVIEW: Tennessee Williams' SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER Is Presented With Simplicity At Ensemble TheatreFor fans of Sondheim and Lapine's dark and grown up take on the fairytales of old, INTO THE WOODS is a beautiful story and provided the viewer goes in aware that the poetry will not always land properly due to the adjustments to pace and pronunciation, there are many fabulous elements in this production. While it was disappointing to have to discount the power of the Witch since it is such an iconic role but the core story of the Baker and his wife powers this production and Hannaford, Smith, Alix and Draxl should not be missed.

Photos: Christopher Hayles

REVIEW: Tennessee Williams' SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER Is Presented With Simplicity At Ensemble Theatre

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