Venue: Central Hall
Run: 9-11 Feb, Sat 2pm matinee
Directors: Emily Thommes, Freyja Winterson
Producers: Francesca Isherwood, Katie Lambert, Joseph Williams
Musical Directors: Tom Marlow, Nicholas Tudor
It’s not a flawless musical, but this was a brave, near flawless production, with an outstanding cast. Into The Woods is a dark yet enchanting tale of myth, metaphor and connection – “a nightmare, a dream and somewhere in between”.
Based on the famous Grimm fairytales, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, and Jack and Beanstalk, Into The Woods is a hybrid musical with a haunting score and witty lyrics that only an intelligent cast could attempt to perform. Sondheim’s score has macabre rhythms and a sort of incomplete nature to many of the numbers but this doesn’t detract from the beautiful, and almost achingly sad harmonies, delivered here with exceptional musical direction.
Indeed, the very structure of the musical would not have been sustained had the cast not been so collectively strong. The 1st Act sees the story move with indistinct scenes through a series of comic fairytale stories woven into one, the encounters distinguished only by effective lighting and well-balanced use of different parts of the stage at various heights. This consistent busyness meant that any weak link would have been very obvious, yet the generic leads (Red Riding hood, Cinderella, the Baker and his Wife) were well matched by the character roles (both excellent and hilarious Princes, the Ugly Sisters, the marvellous wicked Stepmother, and of course, the Witch), making it a wholesome ensemble piece rather than the usual musical recipe of ‘leads’ and ‘chorus’.
We opened with the 3 charming yet not overbearing narrators skilfully weaving their lines through the tale. The frantic, playful style of the 1st Act made best use of the clever staging, with a domineering Rapunzel’s tower and use of props such as an open suitcase to represent a house.
At the interval, the audience feels a sense of closure, as all the wishes of the characters have come true. But in the 2nd Act, the aftermath ensues appealling to the tender themes of parenting and adolescence with some soft, accomplished performances of Sondheim’s saddest numbers. In particular, ‘Children will listen’ by Emilie Smith and ‘You are not alone’ by Amy Walsh, brought a completely different dimension to the cast’s talents. They managed the humour of the long first half with affected, afflicted performances in the second and for this, the piece as a whole must be hugely commended. Alex Wilson who played the Baker must be especially commended for his adept handling of this character development, culminating in a beautiful duet with Luke de Belder.
Unless the team specifically decided not to appeal to the obvious, and use foliage or actual trees as part of the set design, then that’s fine. But anybody who saw the open air production in Regent’s Park, actually set in a wood, may be a little disappointed at half the magic of this musical coming from the mystery of the trees themselves.
Alas, it is a rare pleasure to see an entire cast strong enough not only to take on the challenging Sondheim score, and a lopsided musical, but to do it with such seamless class and timing. It takes an accomplished actor to experiment with such seemingly simple pantomime characters, but whose subplots are decidedly more poignant and profound. This year, Central Hall Musical Society managed the macabre and the magic with aplomb.