‘Into the Woods’ was magical.
Hidden away in Manly is the fabulous Star Theatre, the venue for Savoyards Musical Theatre’s latest production of ‘Into the Woods’. Attached to Wynnum State High School, the decently sized theatre hosted a sold-out audience who were ready to be wowed.
‘Into the Woods’ is a classic Sondheim musical that is loved by many in the musical theatre community. Essentially a mash-up of fairy tales, ‘Into the Woods’ sees the likes of Cinderella and Rapunzel on stage next to Little Red Riding Hood and Jack from Jack in the Beanstalk, in a narrative with more twists and turns than the storybooks they come from.
For Savoyards, it’s a perfect choice. The company is known for its high-quality productions that can often be considered professional in quality, with extravagant sets and high production value. Despite this reputation, some components of ‘Into the Woods’ didn’t seem to hit that same level of quality in aesthetics, whether that is due to the new venue or the pantomime style of ‘Into the Woods’.
In saying that, director Vanessa Wainwright has done a fantastic job with the ingenuity of the sets, the top-notch soundscapes and the quality of the cast. Working alongside Matthew Semple the orchestra and vocals were top notch.
Set design by Charlotte Keen was simple but typical of a pantomime style production. A few rostra blocks on stage with cleverly decorated flats on the front gave the appearance of a forest. There were a few trees that stood tall and wide enough on stage to allow for characters to overhear each other, magical characters to seemingly appear from nowhere, and ultimately, build the illusion of a forest without crowding the stage. Sometimes it did feel as though the cast didn’t have enough time to exit against musical cues due to having to walk around the set, however, given the twisting nature of the exits, it did add to the idea that the woods were constantly twisting and turning and large in size.
There were some very clever props made for the production as well that aided to particular storylines. However, it was odd that some were made with so much effort with little use on stage, while others weren’t considered. For instance, a giant harp that is present for three scenes was constructed and rolled in/out, but a beanstalk present for the majority of Act One was not constructed and just referenced offstage. However, the ingenuity of other props overshadowed this, with Milky White the cow being a pure white bicycle, and Rapunzel’s tower a beautifully decorated ladder. There were strong ideas across the board for props but there didn’t seem to be a cohesive aesthetic that linked them all.
The orchestra, as always at Savoyards, was impeccable. Headed by Matthew Semple, they handled the difficult score with ease, even acting as sound effects at certain moments. This coupled with other SFX of giants walking and beanstalks falling created a brilliant soundscape. Their flawless performance was in a room next to the stage and the instruments were amplified with microphones and played through the sound system. This allowed their sound to be controlled and balanced with the vocalists on stage. While the band sounded fantastic and their performance came through clearly, the performance of the vocalists on stage suffered due to microphones not working properly. All the vocalists, unless they had a louder belt part, sounded almost muted by their mics, in comparison with the band. Whether that was the type of microphone used or other sound issues, it meant that the audience sometimes lost the lyrics, which are arguably the cleverest and most impressive part of a Sondheim musical.
Despite this, the performers did well to maintain their energy and vocals were impressive. Sondheim is no easy task and the cast nailed their entrances and exits in songs. Their timing was impeccable and had obviously been rehearsed to perfection.
While they performed with gusto, some characterisation felt a touch disjointed. Some actors seemingly pushed the more extreme pantomime style of performance, whereas others were caught in hyper-realism. Given the style of the show, the pantomime style of acting seemed to resonate much more with the audience, leaving them in fits of laughter. A particular example was Rapunzel’s melodramatic crying around the forests of the woods. But due to the hyper-realistic nature of other performers, their laugh lines of jokes didn’t land as effectively. Even if it wasn’t cohesive, all actors committed to whichever style they had developed and did well in creating their unique characters.
Stand out performances came from Julie Eisentrager as Rapunzel, Lara Boyle as Cinderella, Conor Ensor as Cinderella’s Prince Charming, David McLaughlin in the dual roles of the Steward and the Wolf, Astin Hammermeister as the Baker’s Wife, and Andrew Dark as the Baker.
Eisentrager as Rapunzel was beautifully over the top. Though it isn’t an especially large role Eisentrager took advantage of every moment pushing her tragic character to the extremes, whilst supporting her strong acting performance with a beautiful clear singing voice.
Lara Boyle played the endearingly sweet Cinderella with beauty and grace. Her singing voice was easily the strongest of all the cast; every word was heard and every note was hit perfectly. Her prince, Conor Ensor, bounced off her character’s nuances well, as he pursued her through the woods. His duet with Rapunzel’s Prince (played by Tony Ahchay) was a production highlight, with the two dramatically complaining about their woes as princes in the fantastic song ‘Agony’. Ensor’s voice moved through the score with ease and his characterisation of the Prince was perfectly balanced. He showed just enough heart that the audience liked him, and just enough “charisma” that they also didn’t quite trust him.
David McLaughlin as the Steward and the Wolf was another strong comedic actor, and his rendition of ‘Hello Little Girl’ had the audience in stitches. Most notable was his commitment to the physicality of the characters, fully transforming into the prowling wolf with his whole body, not relying upon just a costume.
Andrew Dark and Astin Hammermeister as the Baker and the Baker’s Wife respectively were a solid choice for the couple that string together the whole plot of the production. Both Dark and Hammermeister had a strong rapport with each other. Dark tended more to perform in the world of realism, which suited the character of the Baker, though perhaps meant losing a few of his comedic moments. Hammermeister flipped between realism and heightened realism at key moments throughout the production and kept the audience engaged throughout the show.
The remaining cast including Warryn James, Paige McKay, Tavis Bancroft, Sonja Bancroft, Jacqui Cuny, Tammy Linde, Luke O’Hagan, Elyse Rea, Georgina Purdie and Erika Tucker also gave strong performances throughout the production. Whether their role was large or small, everyone was committed in their performance and brought many beloved and sometimes dark fairytales to life.
For Savoyards first production of the year, ‘Into the Woods’ was a magical experience. For fans of the show or Sondheim’s work, this production will be a thoroughly enjoyable evening. The Wynnum’s Star Theatre has played a perfect host to many emerging stars in Brisbane’s community and this production is certainly no exception.
‘Into the Woods’ runs until the 14th of March at the Star Theatre. Tickets available at Savoyard Musical Theatre’s Website.
Photography by Sharyn Hall.