Into The Woods review – Australian take on Sondheim masterpiece needs more time to soar

·4-min read

When the legendary Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim arrived on the scene, the effect was seismic. He challenged and provoked musical theatre into new relevance and startling profundity, crafting shows that asked tougher questions about the nature of life and love. He made musicals that united the head and the heart with sophistication, hyper-lexical intelligence, and daring musicality.

By the time his fractured-fairytale musical Into the Woods debuted on Broadway in 1987, Sondheim was already a force to be reckoned with – but he still managed to surprise. By the end of the first act, he gives all his characters a happy ending. In the second, he looks beyond happily-ever-afters towards what comes next: ambivalence, unfulfillment, the cruelty of loss. It is, tenderly and quietly, a parable about the Aids crisis – represented here by a giant leaving careless destruction in its wake, leaving a world shocked by sudden grief – but it is also an exploration of wanting, loving and our restless drive to find something that will finally make us feel complete. And how we never seem to get there.

It’s ferociously witty, narratively adventurous, and musically thrilling, filled with wordplay, patter, pathos and care. It requires a command of musicality, precision and tone. It is not a simple work. And in a new production for Belvoir co-produced by the Hayes theatre, the company’s artistic director, Eamon Flack, has taken the reins. Although he’s better known for plays, Flack’s passion for this musical is clear: there’s a clear and loving hand guiding the work.

With a book by James Lapine, the show brings together recognisable fairytale characters – Little Red Riding Hood (Mo Lovegrove), Cinderella (Shubshri Kandiah, who recently played the more traditional Cinderella in the Rodgers and Hammerstein production), Jack, of ‘the Beanstalk’ fame (Marty Alix), Rapunzel (Stefanie Caccamo), and two Princes Charming (Tim Draxl and Andrew Coshan) – and unites them with parallel quests into the eponymous woods. They all cross paths with the pair at the heart of the piece, a Baker (Justin Smith) and his wife (Esther Hannaford), who have been cursed by a glorious, complicated, clever Witch (Tamsin Carroll). A Narrator (Peter Carroll) keeps the story moving – well, at first.

On a cabaret-style set by Michael Hankin, with a few carefully judged and whimsical props (three of which were co-designed by costume designer Micka Agosta), the story plays out with gusto and occasional flashes of brilliance: the Witch makes inventive entrances and exits (one involves a delightful vehicle that can’t be spoiled); the Narrator throws confetti as punctuation; the players weave between and around the two pianos onstage. In new orchestrations for piano by Guy Simpson, it’s like seeing a musical unplugged but still soaring; the melodies are so pure and moving it’s as if they’re new again.

Unfortunately, this show is also underdeveloped. With longer rehearsal, or more time in previews, it could have dug deeper into its choices. It will probably mature over the course of the run – but on opening night it felt frustratingly, tantalizingly, unresolved.

The bones of Flack’s production make sense. He’s drawn on his approach to classical plays for contemporary audiences: a scaled-back set, utilising the actors’ natural accents (for the most part), and building his emotional journeys around recognisable beats of comedy, tragedy and conflict.

But it is also feels guarded. A burst of colourful streamers represent the tangled trees of the woods, but it’s such a small amount the effect doesn’t quite land; most of the cast play small, rather than filling the stage; the more vulnerable moments in the second act feel surgically deployed rather than emotionally discovered. The Wolf (also Draxl) feels frustratingly superficial in his interaction with Little Red; any interrogation into the sexual undertones of their connection feels too subtle or stepped-around to make a point about power and consent.

The weaknesses are more noticeable in the book than the music, which is surprising given Flack’s obvious love of text and dialogue – but in the hands of Simpson and a cast of superlative interpreters of musical theatre, the songs are the standout.

The most successful numbers are those with the clearest and contained arcs: Kandiah’s On the Steps of the Palace shows a Cinderella with a soul at least double the size of the one she played for Opera Australia; Alix’s Giants in the Sky is revelatory, a perfect match for Lovegrove’s frank I Know Things Now. Hannaford’s Moments in the Woods is sublime.

Carroll’s Witch is compromised in her beautiful second-act songs by an accent choice that doesn’t translate well in moments of deeper meaning, but she otherwise owns the stage – slinking through chaos with a knowing look; draping herself across a piano with superiority and distaste. She’s a star, and so is Hannaford; they play with lyrics, timing, and phrasing like only those at the top of their game can.

Still, as much as you might wish to surrender to the story, it’s kept at arm’s length. There’s a bright future for this production – but on opening night, it doesn’t swing hard or dig deep enough to bring us to catharsis.