Monday, September 06, 2010

What with all the heightened emotion of the two Last Days of HAIR - Gavin Creel's final show on Wednesday and the cast on Saturday - my trip to see Sondheim's INTO THE WOODS has been on the blog back-burner.

As I reported a few weeks back HERE rain stopped play on our first attempt to see it and on Friday 27th I had been watching the skies all day as well as realising that I had a cold brewing too. But nothing was going to put me off having another crack at this production of one of my favorite Sondheim shows.

From the first attempt at seeing it I had liked what I saw with some reservations, seeing the full production confirmed both initial responses.

First off I must say how heartening it was to see the auditorium so busy and given the nature of the show it was no surprise to see there was quite a large kid quotient there, maybe a bit too young for the show's darker moments - but then the wee shaggers have to learn sometimes that Happily Ever After doesn't always mean the end of the story.There have been some snitty comments regarding the score in the published reviews, mostly about the show's second act turning away from the first act's megamix of fairy tale characters to more sober reflections on responsibility and community. But they are, of course, wrong, the arc and breadth of Sondheim's score is remarkable and the more you listen to it the more personal it becomes to the listener.

But did I like the production? For years I have been baffled how a show which would seem to be a natural for the Open Air has been overlooked and now it has been given a bracing production by Timothy Sheader which by and large I enjoyed but there were a few jarring choices that pulled my focus.Soutra Gilmour - whose sets this year for POLAR BEARS and THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED have overworked a particular design idea - here designed an intriguing multi-level metal platform which stretched off in all directions into the surrounding trees and reached high up for Rapunzel's tower room. It was certainly an ingenious way to use the height of that stage - but that was all it did. I was hoping maybe some of it might fall away when the Giant's Wife stomps around the land but no. The perils of a standing set. I loved the idea of how to represent the Giant's Wife however but no points for the WAR HORSE rip-off for Milky White and the Golden Hen.

Her costumes too were a bizarre hybrid of 1940s Country House, music video cast-offs and whatever was going at Cosprop. The Witch was also cursed with having an awful transformation dress, it was a bottle-green number that suggested Scarlett O'Hara's outfit made from her mother's curtains. It was a show singularly lacking in glamour - oh and while I'm on the subject. The Witch had one of the lamest transformations ever. The idea of having a runaway boy as the narrator is an interesting one, he is introduced camping in the woods with a satchel full of his toys that he uses to illustrate the story - but as good as the two boys were who we saw play the role, the toys concept surely was lost on anyone beyond row H and both boys were out of their depth at the end of the first act when the Narrator has LOTS of exposition *and* has to sing "Ever After". However I have to give Sheader credit for not wimping out and still having the Narrator killed when the fairy tale characters give him up to The Giant's Wife in exchange for being left alone. There was a nice uneasy chill in the audience at that.

Also my major irritant was the lame idea of having the characters with funny lines - The Baker's Wife, Red Riding Hood, Jack and Jack's Mother - to be played as Reet Northern. It would have worked for Red Riding Hood and Jack but Jenna Russell only seemed to be revisiting her equally Northern Dot in SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE. It just gets old and plays rather naff.So Constant Reader, you would assume from the above that I had a ghastly time. No of course I didn't I enjoyed it a lot - it's just I love this show so much (it was the first musical I ever saw on Broadway) that directorial flounces tend to annoy if they detract from the show's emotional journey.

By and large the cast were all delightful. In two studies of motherhood, Gaye Brown certainly made her presence felt as Cinderella's fog-horning Stepmother and the delightful Marilyn Cutts was great as Jack's Mother, her early demise was keenly felt. The most surprising performance was from Billy Boyle as the Mysterious Man - this part is usually doled out to the most irritating altacocker in the cast but Boyle gave a nicely restrained performance making his and Mark Hadfield's "No More" duet actually listenable for a change.

You know you are in trouble if your Red Riding Hood doesn't steal the show but luckily we were in the greedy hands of Beverly Rudd who took anything that wasn't nailed down. Looking initially like James Cordon in a polka-dot dress, Rudd was delightful and socked across her "I Know Things Now" solo suggesting that Red Riding Hood was more than happy for her "moment" with the Wolf.

Mark Hadfield lacked a bit of sparkle as the Baker but he is always an enjoyable presence on stage and he was ably partnered on stage by Jenna Russell - who despite speaking the part like a Gracie Fields soundalike - was a constant delight in her musical numbers and there wasn't a dry-eye in the house by the time she sang "Sometimes people leave you..." in the final moments of the show.

Ben Stott was an endearingly thick Jack but sang "Giants In The Sky" very well, it was great to look up to see him sing this amid the trees leaves - and to indeed look up at the very sky itself. For me the biggest cast disappointment was the colourless Cinderella of Helen Dallimore. I thought she had the most uninteresting voice onstage and how innocent can Cinderella be when she has a nose-ring in?

However by the sound of the applause at the end of his numbers, the hit of the evening was Michael Xavier in the one-two combination of The Wolf and Cinderella's Prince. The seeming lovechild of Rupert Everett and Russell Brand, Xavier was a vital presence onstage and was delightfully partnered by Simon Thomas on two killer versions of "Agony". I must say that the cast's vocal diction throughout was superb - Sondheim's lyrics never sounded so clear and precise.I am still unsure of Hannah Waaddingham as The Witch. She certainly made a striking hag - almost looking like a walking tree - but her 'glamorous' Louise Brooks bob and the afore mentioned Scarlett O'Hara dress seemed to also rob her of some interest. She did however sing The Witches great anthems to love and loss very well - her rendition of "Stay With Me" to the disturbed Rapunzel was one of the high-points of the show.So there you go, not for me the best production of the show but with enough dazzling components to make it surely as much a staple of the Open Air's future repertoire as A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM.

Sondheim and James Lapine's comic-tragic tale of magic and loss, survival and the need for a family - either biological or the one you choose for yourself - may not be to every one's liking but for me, it's one of Sondheim's best and most emotionally direct scores.

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