James Brining’s direction is creative, imaginative and disciplined, with designs from Colin Richmond that almost offer an alternative narrative in themselves, writes Ron Simpson.
Opera North supplies the cast which is why the first certainty about the production is that it is, without exception, extremely well sung.
The only doubts may come with the work itself. Stephen Sondheim’s musicals have never lent themselves to easy judgements and Into the Woods is no exception. The concept is brilliant: taking popular fairy stories – Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel – and weaving them together with the aid of a new story, that of the baker and the baker’s wife who are desperate to remove the curse that leaves them childless. Sondheim and his book writer, James Lapine, reach Happy Ever After by the interval, then move into What Happens After Happy Ever After?
Into the Woods is certainly sophisticated, original, and witty, adventurous in content and thoughtful in delivery, but it is also too long for the material and increasingly repetitive. The title song is a delight and used and re-used to great effect. The clever comic numbers all work well and the interlocking ensembles form an exhilarating cat’s cradle of music. However, as time passes, there does seem to be too much unmemorable musical introspection.
Watch the trailer
With that proviso Into the Woods is a superb evening’s theatre. The first stroke of genius greets the audience on entering the Quarry Theatre, a meticulously detailed primary classroom on World Fairy Tales Day – dressing up clearly in order. In time that amiably conscientious teacher (Nicholas Butterfield) will prove to be the Narrator, the cleaner hard at work on the windows will be Cinderella (who else?) and the children will go out on a class project – into the woods! The direction of the children throughout is wonderfully imaginative and their acting is remarkably convincing and appealing.
The Opera North Chorus has long had a reputation for versatility, acting ability and willingness to have a go at anything (plus singing well, of course!) and Into the Woods takes it one stage further, all the parts cast from Chorus members, all delivered with skill and panache.
Anyone who saw Gillene Butterfield as Julie in Carousel will not be surprised that she is an outstanding Cinderella, but the same excellence runs through the entire cast with Claire Pascoe dominating the stage as the Witch in both decrepit and glamorous manifestations; Warren Gillespie and Ross McInroy as pathetically posturing princes; Nicholas Watts and Hazel Croft the source of much homely fun as Jack and his mother; Dean Robinson and Louise Collett all too human as Baker and Wife; and so many more. Under the attentive direction of Jim Holmes, equally expert in opera and music theatre, the spry 10-piece band accompanies nimbly and stylishly.
by Ron Simpson