INTO THE WOODS
book by James Lapine lyrics and music by Stephen Sondheim.
Royal Exchange Theatre St Ann’s Square M2 7D To 16 January 2016.
Mon-Sat 7.30pm Mat Thu & Sat, 3 & 10 Jan 2.30pm.
no performance 4, 11 Jan.
Runs 3hr 5min One interval.
TICKETS: 0161 833 9833.
Review: Timothy Ramsden: 12 December.
Ingenuity beyond the call of narrative.
By some way the best of the musicals Stephen Sondheim wrote over a decade with James Lapine is Sunday in the Park with George. I wish the Royal Exchange had produced this, but they couldn’t. About painter Georges Seurat and the artist’s world, its sensational first-act climax combines musical and visual styles. But it can’t be staged properly in-the-Round.
Coming from three years later, Sondheim and Lapine’s 1987 Into the Woods seems made for an all-round audience as characters from several well-known folk and fairy-tales set out on their well-trodden paths of adventure.
The arboreal complex where they become mentally as well as physically involved in their adventures expresses the title’s sense of danger and confusion through Jenny Tiramani’s maze of trees, among which humble scenes arise. There’s a moment of surprise, thanks to Chris Fisher’s illusions, where the malign ingestations of Red Riding Hood’s Wolf are undone.
But Sondheim’s career-long brilliance with lyrics, trenchant and humorous by turn, seems to imprison him here – as if he too were astray in a forest of brief twists and turns. The cleverness becomes telegrammatic, the lyrics starting to seem imprisoned as short-line sound-bites, with a consequent drawing-in of expressive range and sympathy.
It’s an impression increased by the anthology-like nature of the action, with its switches between various tales that show no necessity to be in the same piece. Added to which there are different levels of performance quality. Cinderella’s story seems particularly caught between pantomimic exaggeration and the dark heart of self-mutilation at its core.
So it’s unsurprising the story Lapine and Sondheim have created as a narrative compass, about a baker and his wife, has an emotional directness and humanity absent among the cleverness elsewhere.
It’s helped too by the contrast between the solid human concerns of Alex Gaumond and Amy Ellen Richardson as the Baker and Wife in contrast to the malignity and glee of Gillian Bevan as the Witch who blights their lives.
Director Matthew Xia marshals much of the action impressively enough, but makes too little of the Narrator telling these stories to a young child.
Narrator/Mysterious Man: Cameron Blakely.
Cinderella: Francesca Zoutewelle.
Jack: David Moorst.
Milky White/Puppeteer: Rachel Goodwin.
Baker: Alex Gaumond.
Baker’s Wife: Amy Ellen Richardson.
Cinderella’s Stepmother/Grandmother: Gemma Page.
Florinda: Maimuna Memon.
Lucinda: Michaela benison.
Jack’s Mother: Claire Brown.
Little Red Riding Hood: Natasha Cottriall.
Witch: Gillian Bevan.
Rapunzel’s Prince: Marc Elliott.
Cinderella’s Mother: Amelia Cavallo.
Wolf/Cinderella’s Prince: Michael Peavoy.
Rapunzel: Isabella Peters.
Steward: Michael O’Connor.
Voice of the Giant: Maxine Peake.
Child: Emeen Aldean/Conor McIntosh/Shreyas Mishra/Michael Munden.
Director: Matthew Xia.
Designer: Jenny Tiramani.
Lighting: Ciaran Cunningham.
Sound: John Leonard.
Musical Arranger/Supervisor: Julian Kelly.
Musical Director: Sean Green.
Movement/Choreographer: Jason Pennycooke.
Illusions: Chris Fisher.
Assistant director: Kate Colgrave Pope.