Saturday 23 June 2007

Review of Into the Woods

The cast for the Royal opera's new production (in the Linbury Studio) of Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods" was a cunning mix of young opera singers and singing actors;a cast whose musical experience spanned the gamut of the musical stage. Directed by choreographer Will Tuckett, the results were surprisingly coherent and uniform. There was little of the feeling of disparated elements coupled unsatisfactorily.

Tuckett's direction was fluent and fluid. He shed no new light on the work, but simply and imaginatively told the story. Vastly helped by Lez Brotherston's flexible and beautiful set. The wood, as created by Tuckett and Brotherston was a thing of both terror and beauty. But of course, being a Sondheim show, the terror was laced with humour.

Clive Rowe and Anna Francolini were superb as the Baker and his wife, chasing after their dream of conceiving a child. At times Francolini reminded me of Imelda Staunton in the same role in Richard Jones's West End production of the musical. And Francolini's performance was nearly as impressive. Rowe brought a charming wide-eyed naivety to the role of the Baker. Plus, of course, his fine singing voice.

Suzanne Toase's Little Red Riding Hood was deliciously awful. Strong minded and knowing, her dialogue with Nicholas Garrett's Wolf redolent of sexual exploration and discovery. As Jack (of Beanstalk fame), Peter Caulfield did not have the strongest singing voice, but he put his songs over well and engaged our sympathy for Jack's hapless character - after all he spends most of Act 1 regarding his cow, Milky White, as his best friend. Jack's mother was played by Anne Reid, an actress not usually known for her singing roles, but she too put her songs over well.

As Cinderella, Gillian Kirkpatrick showed remarkable resource underneath the pretty exterior, as the character must. Kirkpatrick has an attractive voice which helped reveal Cinderella's depths. Christina Raphaelle Haldane's Rapunzel (in this version she is the Baker's long lost sister), gets to sing one thing only, but she did so beautifully. the 2 princes, Nicholas Garrett and Nic Greenshields looked and sounded the part. Their duet, "Agony" was one of the highlights, as it should be.

In every production of "Into the Woods" that I have seen, the witch has to struggle in my mind with the memory of Julia Mackenzie, who the part fitted like a glove. Beverly Klein very nearly succeeded. In her opening 'song' (actually a pitcheless number, spoken rhythmically) she established herself brilliantly. Though in her other Act 1 numbers she seemed not entirely at ease. But once transformed into a her glamorous self in Act 2, her musical performance strengthened and she gave a strong account of "The Last Midnight".

One interesting fact. Cinderella's step mother, Elizabeth Brice, played one of Cinderella's step-sisters in the original West End run.

The whole was well controlled by conductor James Holmes, who seemed to be able to operate well even though hidden behind the scenes.

Being directed by a choreographer, the stage pictures were fluid and fluent. Characters broke out into little moments of choreography, but there was not sense that this was a dance piece manqué. It was a fine piece of musico-dramatic theatre. Tuckett seems to be developing into a fine director with a nice eye/ear for character.

By the end of act 2, when the Giantess has killed many of the cast and the rest have fled, we are reduced to the Baker, his infant son, Cinderella, Jack and Red Riding Hood. They discover that they must work together to succeed against the Giantess and ultimately, make their own non-traditional family group. This is movingly conveyed in the haunting ballad "No-one is alone", which was beautifully sung and staged. Though Sondheim and Lapine do not preach, this 2nd Act is very strongly redolent of the gay community's early struggles against AIDS, which was happening around the time the work was being written.

But Sondheim and Lapine do not allow the work to end on a dying fall, but bring the mmostly dead cast back for a glorious finale.

This was a hugely enjoyable production. the cast was well balanced and all put words over very well, a strong requirement in Sondheim. I hope this is not the last time Tuckett investigates musical theatre.

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