Sunday, August 30, 2015

Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine

Into the Woods  Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; Book by James Lapine.  Dramatic Productions in association with ANU School of Music, directed by Richard Block.  Musical Director: Damien Slingsby; Choreographer: Kathryn Jones; Lighting: Hamish McConchie; Sound: James PcPherson.  At Gungahlin College Theatre, Canberra, August 28 – September 12, 2015.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
August 28

Having only previously seen Into the Woods via the movie, I would like to thank the Dramatic Productions team.  Now I know what Sondheim meant me to understand.  Only on stage, because of the way a playwright structures the drama, do we appreciate both the humour in the breaking of conventions and the genuinely serious theme which results.

At the simplest level, the film does not have an Act I Finale, followed, after an interval of popcorn consumption, by Act II with its Finale.  ‘No One is Alone’ is a powerful expression of humanity in the context of truth about the human condition.  In movie format the guts of the message is lost.

My appreciation also goes to all the performers for clearly understanding the Sondheim style, in the music and in the often surprising structure of the songs, where what would be short sharp dialogue between characters makes duets into lively interactions – little dramas in their own right.  The two princes Alexander Clubb (Cinderella’s Prince) and Anthony Simeonovic (Rapunzel’s Prince) created very effective comedy in their timing in their singing lines, as well as in their choreographed movement; while Veronica Thwaites-Brown and Grant Pegg captured the edginess of the marital arguments of the Baker and his Wife, as well as their tenderness.  Despite the ‘spoof’ nature of the whole idea of the mixed up fairytales, the sudden death, crushed by the Giant’s footfall off-stage, of this Wife made me feel entirely at one with this Baker’s sense of loss.  Her later return in spirit to give him support and direction was played with such simple sensitivity by Veronica, that we could genuinely accept Grant’s new quiet strength as the Baker taking the still impetuous young Jack (Pippin Carroll) under his wing in ‘No One is Alone’. 

The relationship Veronica and Grant had established by then also passed on to Philippa Murphy’s Cinderella in mentoring Siân Harrington’s effervescent Little Red Riding Hood in their half of that quartet.  Here was the formation out of the worst adversity of a new family of the best kind.  For me it was the emotional strength in this scene which lifted the play far above making fun of fairy stories, and beyond conventional sentimentality.  The Giants with their crushing footsteps are all around us, yet on this very day instead of our society understanding the need to bring us all together in positive human feeling, people in Melbourne were on the streets in instant protest against the Australian Border Force proposing to stop people – “any individual we cross paths with” – and demand to see that they are legitimately in Australia.  Within hours Operation Fortitude was cancelled as a result of the Melbourne Jacks’ action.  The Giant was slain.  But I fear this may not be the last of the Giants our Bakers, Jacks, Cinderellas and Red Riding Hoods, or indeed the sons and daughters of the Baker and his Wife, the Baker and Cinderella, and presumably Jack and Red Riding Hood, will have to deal with.

Though there were a few glitches in the lighting and once or twice in the singers’ mikes, the set, costumes and choreography made very good use of the excellent Gunghalin College Theatre.  I could only be jealous in comparison with what for me had been an unusually good school theatre at Hawker College back in the 1990s.  It’s good to see such wonderful – and appropriate – development in government school and community arts facilities.

Finally, the musicianship of the orchestra, directed by Damien Slingsby, must not be forgotten.  Sondheim writes ‘difficult’ music, and this 16-piece orchestra made it a joy to listen to, in combination with singers all of whom mastered what I, as an amateur, would call ‘musical jumps’ – like an obstacle course for an Olympic horse-riding team.

So thanks again for a very interesting night out.

All photos by Peter Stiles

Baker's Wife, Baker, Jack, The Cow
Veronica Thwaites-Brown, Grant Pegg, Pippin Carroll

Cinderella's Family
Jessica Baker, Kitty McGarry, Miriam Miley-Read
Philippa Murphy as Cinerella

Cinderella at The Ball
Philippa Murphy

Kelly Robert as The Witch

The Wolf and Red Riding Hood
Alexander Clubb, Siân Harrington


'No One is Alone'
Little Red Riding Hood, Jack, Cinderella (holding Baker's son), Baker
Siân Harrington, Pippin Carroll, Philippa Murphy, Grant Pegg