INTO THE WOODS
Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 30thApril 2023
Tackling this masterwork by the late, great Stephen Sondheim is no easy task. It requires a large cast of excellent actor-singers to pull off its dissonant melodies and to breathe life into the often complex and witty lyrics. I’m happy to report that the Crescent rises to the challenge and succeeds. Impressively.
The story blends elements from familiar fairy and folk tales: Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, primarily. A baker and his wife who are childless are sent on a scavenger hunt by the witch who lives next door… But as ever, with Sondheim, it’s not the setting that’s the main thing. It’s the insights into human relationships, the reflections on life, things to which we can all relate.
Phil Rea’s Narrator sets the scene, a largely non-singing role, and a voice of avuncular authority. As Cinderella, Helena Stanway is one of the strongest singers of the lot, treating us to her beautiful soprano. Similarly, Hannah Devereux’s Rapunzel is an absolute pleasure to hear, with her bewitching wordless refrain. Mark Payne is excellent as the nervous Baker, matched by Tiffany Cawthorne as his more assertive Wife. Luke Plimmer is in fine form as a rather dopey Jack, to the consternation of Steph Urquhart as his longsuffering mother. Hannah Lyons is an enjoyably impish Red Riding Hood, while Alisdair Hurst’s Wolf is deliciously seductive. Hurst also appears as Cinderella’s Prince, duetting with Mark Horne as Rapunzel’s Prince in another of the show’s highlights.
A strong ensemble then, fleshed out by the likes of Jaz Davison, Joanne Brookes and Becky Johnson as Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters, but an undoubted standout is Kimberley Maynard’s superb Witch, who is funny and scary and yet also evokes our sympathy. Maynard commands our attention and we willingly fall under her spell.
As we’ve come to expect from the Crescent, the production values are sky high. Storybook trees fill the stage, fading into misty perspective on the backdrop and beautifully lit by James Booth’s lighting. Pat Brown and her team (Vera Dean and Erik Olsen) have gone all out on the fairy-tale costumes. Set designers Keith Harris and Colin Judges have created an otherworldly space of mystery, enticement and potential danger, while Zena Forrest and Pat Dales cut-out props remind us we’re in a fictional world.
A splendid thirteen-piece band, under the baton of musical director Gary Spruce, brings Sondheim’s sumptuous score to life – I can’t think of a time when I’ve heard music played so beautifully at the Crescent.
By the interval, the characters have achieved their goals and attained their Happy Ever Afters – or have they? The second act deals with what comes afterwards, when the best one can hope for is happiness devolving into contentment. Threat comes in the form of the giant’s wife (voiced by Ruby Turner, no less!) and the characters find they have to work together to defeat her. Perhaps I’m alone in reading in a metaphor for climate change at this point… Sondheim calls upon us to act as a community rather than being absorbed by our own desires. The characters have to learn to live without a narrator, like the rest of us, our endings unknown until they happen. Once you’ve obtained everything you want, what are you going to do next? Just like the stories on which it is based, the show has life lessons to teach.
A thoroughly captivating and superbly presented production. Enchanting!
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Kimberley Maynard and Hannah Devereux as the Witch and Rapunzel (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)