Sunday, August 30, 2015


Into The Woods

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.  Book by James Lapine. Directed by Richard Block. Musical Direction by Damien Slingsby. Choreography by Kathryn Jones. Gunghalin College Theatre. August 28 - September 12 2015

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

I have often sung the praises of the quality of music theatre productions in Canberra, but Richard Block’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods has raised the bar to an entirely new level.  Sondheim’s canon of remarkable works represents the Everest of musical theatre. To scale its challenges demands the pinnacle of performance, the peak of musical direction and orchestration , the heights of choreography and the summit of production. Block’s fledgling Dramatic Productions  delivers in spades at the Gunghalin College Theatre.

Jessica Baker as Florinda. Kitty McGarry as Lucinda. Miriam Miley-Read as the Stepmother and Philippa Murphy as Cinderella in Into The Woods  Photo by Pete Stiles
Part of this production’s astounding success is due to Block’s ability to procure the sumptuous sets, props and costumes of the Victorian State Opera’s original production.  Pictorially, this production of Sondheim’s ingenious take on nursery rhyme characters in search of wish fulfilment is a delightful invitation to Sondheim's twist on the perilous adventures of the popular fairy tale characters : Cinderella (Philippa Murphy) and her wicked stepmother ( Miriam Miley-Read)and step-sisters (Jessica Baker and Kitty McGarry); the childless Baker (Grant Pegg) and his wife (Veronica Thwaites Brown); Jack (Pippin Carroll) and his mother (Debra Byrne),;Rapunzel (Taylor Kunkel) and her mother, the witch who seeks the spell to restore her beauty (Kelly Roberts); Little Red Riding Hood (Sian Harrington) and the Wolf (Alexander Chubb)  and the two princes in search of true love ( Chubb and Anthony Simeonovic).More supporting roles of the Steward (Brian Kavanagh) and Gran (Yanina Clifton) maintain the high performance standard of this production. Sondheim has cleverly interwoven the familiar characters into a search for the things that will bring them true happiness. His use of a storybook narrator (Tony Falla) draws the threads of the mysteries together in a funny, sad, intriguing and thoroughly entertaining magical brew of interwoven relationships and adventures.

Veronica Thwaites-Brown as The Baker's Wife. Grant Pegg as The Baker and Kelly Roberts as The Witch in Dramatic Productions' Into The Woods-  Photo by Pete Stiles
Dramatic Productions’ success must be attributed to the fact that this is an entirely local production, showcasing the most remarkable talent that Canberra has to offer in a musical that is enormously challenging for performers, musicians, and crew. This production offers audiences the opportunity  to experience a highly professional staging of Sondheim’s Into The Woods on their doorstep. Performances by Philippa Murphy as Cinderella, Sian Harrington as Red Riding Hood and Alexander Chubb and Anthony Simeonovic as the Princes  are worthy of any professional production of this musical. So too are the performances of more mature performers such as Pegg, Thwaites-Brown and  Roberts. Special mention should be made of Music Theatre legend Toni Lamond’s superb voiceover rendition of the slain giant’s distraught and vengeful wife. She is the terrifying avenger of unexpected consequence.

Tony Falla as Mysterious and Grant Pegg as The Baker
Photo by Pete Stiles
Musically, Sondheim is the great experimenter with angular harmonies, complex rhythms and a diverse range of styles, inherited from the classics, pop and folk. Into The Woods is less melodic than some of his other works, such as Company, Sweeny Todd or Sunday In The Park With George. Audiences are likely to leave the theatre humming the repetitive title song and the Witch’s Lament, but Sondheim’s occasional haunting atonality leaves a lingering feeling, rather than a popular, hummable tune. Under Damien Slingsby’s superb musical direction, singers and orchestra evoke the atmosphere of Sondheim’s moral musical. The orchestra never intrudes, complementing perfectly the performances upon the stage, and Kathryn Jones’s choreography, combining folk dance and ballet, captures the era of European folk tale  Richard Block’s clean and direct direction is atmospherically complemented  by Hamish McConchie’s lighting and James McPherson’s sound design. Damien Slingsby’s atmospheric musical evocation of Sondheim’s score is skilfully interpreted by his excellent orchestra and Kathryn Jones’s choreography is jubilantly captured by her dancers , Rachel Thornton, Yanina Clifton and Mackenzie Rae Lennard, all of whom double up in other roles. Every aspect of production demonstrates the careful thought that has gone into all aspects of this local production of Into The Woods, making it a highlight upon Canberra’s vibrant Music Theatre scene .
For those who live some distance away on the south side of Canberra, the prospect of venturing out in search of the Gunghalin College Theatre may appear daunting. Cast aside all doubt. The Tuggeranong Parkway offers swift access from even the furthest reaches, and Dramatic Productions’ beautiful staging of Into The Woods by the legendary thinking man and woman’s composer  is not to be missed.