Menier Chocolate Factory Summer 2016
I have to begin by confessing that, although I'm a lifelong Stephen Sondheim fan, Into The Woods is one of my least favourite Sondheim musicals.
I will undoubtedly get around to giving some reasons for that eventually. But use that as a context for my quickly adding that this sprightly and inventive production, imported from New York with the entire Fiasco Theatre company intact, comes as close as I can imagine (and closer than I would have guessed) to making the musical work.
For this 1987 musical Sondheim and book writer James Lapine mashed together several classic fairy tales, added a couple of twists of their own, and let them bounce off each other comically, dramatically and musically.
So we get beanstalk Jack, Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and Rapunzel (along with passing mentions of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty) inhabiting the same world and crossing each others' paths, along with a baker and his wife and an all-purpose witch.
The witch promises the childless baker couple a baby if they deliver several magical tokens – a red hood, some golden hair, a white cow – well, you get the idea.
Act One of Into The Woods introduces us to the characters and lets us enjoy the inventive ways their separate stories work out while continually crossing, and ends with everybody getting what they want and ready to live happily ever after.
In Act Two they do not all live happily ever after – indeed, by the end half are dead and the rest very unhappy.
Clearly the creators' intention was to make the first act comic and the second dramatic. But in practice the first act is a little too self-consciously clever for its own good, and the second tedious.
Second Act problems are virtually a standard ingredient in Sondheim musicals, but rarely does the energy and entertainment level drop as precipitously after the interval as it does here.
And it is exactly this unbalanced quality that this revival fights so almost-successfully. This isn't just a small-scale version of the musical, but the musical reconceived for a small cast and production.
The young and energetic performers double and triple roles, making a comic and occasionally serious virtue of necessity.
Cinderella's ugly sisters are played by the same two bearded actors who are Cindy's and Rapunzel's princes, and one of them – Andy Grotelueschen – is also Jack's cow, in each case with the smoothness and inventiveness of the switches part of the fun.
Emily Young brings a spunky quality to both Rapunzel and Little Red, giving one just a hint of adolescent rebellion while the other is a sharp-edged street kid.
Vanessa Reseland as the witch has the hardest job as the single character is made by plot twists to change from scene to scene, from evil avenger to loving mother to sexpot to wise counsellor and group leader.
Meanwhile, in what is fast becoming standard in small-scale musicals, the cast each take turns at musical instruments, a single pianist (Evan Rees) being the only musical constant.
So most of the pleasure of this production lies in the production, whose fast-moving inventiveness always has something to surprise and delight – at least until the plot clumsiness and heavy-handed moralising of the second act finally sink it.
Much credit to co-directors Noah Brody (also Red's wolf and Cindy's prince) and Ben Steinfeld (baker), along with the whole cast.
Ah, but the songs. How can I have come this far in a Sondheim review without mentioning them?
Well, mainly because they're not very impressive. Too many of them sound like the merely functional lead-ins to songs, stopped short before they reach an actual melody.
You'll come out humming the title song but only because, like 'A Weekend In The Country' in A Little Night Music, it is repeated interminably just before the interval.
The one big song, 'Children Will Listen', has always felt like it was in the wrong show. Sondheim has gone on record saying this show is about parents and children. It isn't.
If it has any central theme, it is that breaking out of safety zones and having adventures – going into the woods – is both exciting and dangerous. That would make songs like Red's 'I Know Things Now' and the wife's 'Moments In The Wood' deserving of more prominence than Sondheim and Lapine give them.
Anyway, the show is there. It's flawed. The production is fresh, bright and immensely entertaining, and almost papers over the flaws.
Anyone who is less of a nit-picker or has less high expectations from Sondheim than I is likely to have a ball.
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Review - Into The Woods - Menier Chocolate Factory 2016