26 July 2014

Review: Into the Woods

Into the Woods
Victorian Opera
19 July 2014
The Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne
to 26 July
victorianopera.com.au

Photo by Jeff Busby

After the success of their Sunday in the Park with George (1984), Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine created Into the Woods (1986), which beat Phantom of the Opera at the Tonys and firmly sits on the top of many favourite-musical lists. Following the success of their 2013 production of Sunday in the Park with George, Victorian Opera have followed with an Into the Woods that's as close to sold out as it can be and even closer to perfection.

With a boldness, a sense of cheekiness and an understated sophistication, Vic Opera tell the tale with Australian twists and a loving understanding of the power of once-upon-a-time story telling. If you have a ticket, don't let it out of your sight because the show's simply unforgettable and reminds us that music theatre should never be a fading and dull copy of another production.

Lapine's book (he also directed the Broadway version) takes characters and well-known stories from the Brothers Grimm's collection of European fairy tales (mid-1800s) and sends them into the woods to find themselves together as part of a bigger story. Act one brings everyone through trials to their happy-ever-after; Act two asks what happens next and is as dark, confronting and blood-filled as traditional fairy tales really are.

Part of the inspiration for Woods was the 1976 book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales by academic and therapist Bruno Bettleheim. Since his death (1990), Bettleheim has been criticised academically and personally, but his book continues to influence and inspire countless writers. Internationally successful Australian children's/young adult writer John Marsden (Tomorrow When the War Began series) is among those who recommend it. It's partly a Freudian psychoanalytic analysis of Fairy Tales (mostly the Grimm's collection) and the rest is a discussion about the psychological impact of fairy tales on children – or the importance of telling and re-telling stories. At the most simple level, we tell stories to understand the world.

But there's nothing simple about Into the Woods. From its surface of fairy tales and gorgeous syncopated rhymes (that Sondheim and his lyrics!), layers are torn away and complexities revealed until grown ups find themselves crying because they see it as a story about themselves. We re-tell stories to understand the world and our place in it.

And the music's by Sondheim, so it shares the every emotion without a word being spoken.

Photo by Jeff Busby

While one of the genius notes of Into the Woods is the complexity of its re-telling of known tales, much of the magnificence of Victorian Opera's production is how director Stuart Maunder lets the story be told without over complication or sentimentality, while supporting the comedy and freeing it from the so-well-known Broadway production that so many of us have seen because it was filmed for TV.

Adam Gardnir's design of bare trees creates an ever-changing wood that's comforting and familiar and terrifying and bone-like (with perhaps a nod to Freud), and the woods are given depth, darkness and magic flashes by Philip Lethlean's lighting. Which are all an ideal world for Harriet Oxley's costumes that take the shape of pantomime-fairy-tale costumes, but are filled with bold colour and geometric shapes that help tell a story that's for now and forever.

Conductor Benjamin Northey and sound designer Jim Atkins create a recordable pit–stage balance that uses the amplification to emphasise the unique sound of each singer, and helps to enforce the idea that stories are best told by human voices.

Vocally and emotionally the cast nail it. While Christina O'Neil (Baker's wife), Rowan Witt (Jack), Queenie van de Zandt (Witch), Josie Lane (Red Riding Hood) and Lucy Maunder (Cinderella) lead the way, everyone brings a real bit of themselves to their roles and every character has their moment of pure enchantment.

The only disappointment about Into the Woods is that it has so few shows and the tickets left can be counted on one hand (hint: try for singles). With producers letting sub-standard shows run for months in big theatres, surely there are ways to bring this production to a bigger audience. #IWish.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

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