‘Into the Woods’ was adventurous.
Students of Australian Academy for Performing Artists assembled to perform the classic Sondheim musical, ‘Into the Woods’ at the Hayward Street Theatre.
An ambitious task, to perform one of the most musically and thematically challenging pieces of musical theatre, that was handled well by both the production team and cast.
‘Into the Woods’ is a Tony award-winning musical which blends the most well-known fairytales, such as ‘Cinderella’, ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and ‘Rapunzel’ into a dark and sardonic look at the human psyche. The storyline and score are brilliant yet complex, as is often the case with Sondheim’s works.
Lighting design by Wes Bluff was subtle. The use of green and red lights enhanced the drama unfolding on stage; scenes with the Witch were most notable. Lighting effects were unobtrusive and discreetly focussed the audience’s attention when required.
Sound design by John Taylor was powerful. A strong use of bass, which vibrated through the audience whenever the beanstalks fell or the giant stomped through the land, brought an immersive element to the show.
Set design, props and costumes were all in keeping with the fairytale theme. An incorporation of books throughout the set was a nice nod to where the characters originated from. Having a complicated set with many entrances, exits and levels was key to staging the show well and allowed the feel of multiple locations without having to change sets.
Director, Tim O’Connor, did well to reinterpret this classic show. Having the narrator hand out the costume pieces to the cast at the start of the show gave the feel that the audience was stepping into a fairytale and helped to suspend their reality for the time that followed.
Similarly, having the ensemble to mime elements such as birds and trees was novel. Clearly, the production team was aware of where the show was lacking technically, and embraced it. Blocking was well thought out and logical, and there was no unnecessary movements.
The only drawback was the decision to have the characters take centre stage for their solos. In this regard, it felt that the action of the show had paused and transformed into a concert, with the performers playing to the audience rather than remaining as part of the storyline. It would have been nice to see Cinderella stay stuck on the stairs for her song ‘On the Steps of the Palace’ and have her invite the audience into her private reverie, rather than coming centre stage and singing at them.
Though the use of a bike as the Milky White is not a new idea, and was seen in recent productions by both Redcliffe Musical Theatre and Savoyards, it worked well. Once the audience had reconciled the fact that the bike was the cow, it proved to be an easy prop to handle onstage and did not detract too much from the story.
Musical Director Dennett Hudson handled the challenging score with relative ease. Most performers kept up with the complex melodies, rhythms and harmonies and any vocal wobbles were quickly rectified.
Choreographically, there is little scope to explore in this show. However, the small amounts of choreographed movement that were incorporated were crisp, clever and effective.
Elanor Grieve did an outstanding job as the Witch. Her characterisation, physicality, confidence and powerful vocals fulfilled all the demands of the role. She by far stole the show, as the Witch should, and commanded such huge numbers as ‘The Last Midnight’ with an ability well beyond her years. Her last performance at Hayward Street Theatre’s ‘Sweet Charity’ was just as memorable, a testament to the fine young talent Grieve is.
Kate Baxter was a sweet and likeable Baker’s Wife. Her sincerity and kindness allowed the audience to warm to her and become invested in her journey. Her vocals were on point, as was her accent which was the most consistent in the show.
Bella Gordon’s Little Red Riding Hood was sassy. Her rendition of ‘I Know Things Now’ was solid and her presence on stage was all encompassing.
Daniel Terrible’s characterisation of the dim-witted Jack was likeable. His fondness for Milky White was apparent and his acting ability was one of the strongest of the cast.
Kimberely Rigby played Cinderella with an air of calmness. Her relaxed presence on stage was a welcome change from the usually highly strung Cinderellas of productions past. Her physical acting ability, such as banging into things and falling over was very believable.
Princes, Sam Caruana and Nathaniel Savy were outstanding. The pair were wonderful storytellers and comics with beautiful voices to match. Their rendition of ‘Agony’ was not only vocally excellent but captivating and funny as well. The pair also played the Ugly Stepsisters, the Wolf and the Mysterious Man. This meant they had a lot to do in the show with very little downtime which they both handled like true professionals.
The glue holding the tangle of stories together was the narrator. Ruby Thompson did a wonderful job at commanding the action on stage and captivating the audience. It felt as though she was in control the whole time and her engagement with the characters as she weaved in and out of their lives meant she came across as the puppet master. Thompson commanded her one song ‘Ever After’ with the same deftness as she did her speaking parts.
‘Into the Woods’ is a very ambitious show to stage, let alone with such a young cast. Though there were times where chemistry was lacking between the characters and the vocals wobbled, overall it was a solid performance and justified interpretation of the show that is well worth spending an evening to go and see.
‘Into The Woods’ performed until 28 August 2022 at Hayward Street Theatre. For more information visit their website.