Matthew Gray reviews the Just So Society’s production of Into the Woods, which will be playing tonight, April 23, at 19:30 and tomorrow, April 24, at 17:00 in the StAge.

For those not familiar with the premise of Sondheim and Lapine’s Into the Woods, the 1986 musical follows the quest of a Baker and his Wife to reverse a witch’s curse, overcoming their infertility and their insecurities to have a child. The titular ‘woods’ serve as the arena, an ambivalent space that brings together characters and tropes from some of the most infamous European fairy tales and forces those navigating its winding paths to question and confront the consequences of their actions and goals. Typical of Sondheim’s oeuvre, every song along the way is a perfectly crafted character piece. Successively, each song further tests the limits and possibilities of the characters navigating the stories mapped out for them. This is not typical bedtime fare. Into the Woods is a show rich in symbolism and subtext, a dream text which can really allow directors to test limits and take the material as far as it can possibly go. Here lies possibly my major (and admittedly only) complaint.

Director Caelan Mitchell-Bennett makes clear in his introductory note that he does not ‘pretend that [he’s] got some insight into this show.’ While his candour is in some ways admirable, Woods fans who found the 2014 Disney adaptation too ‘sanitised’ will no doubt be unable to feel that several opportunities have been missed, especially those accustomed to the foregrounding of the darker and more subversive elements in the Original Broadway Production and even more so in the experimental 1990 Richard Jones production (both work checking out on YouTube). This is not to say that the euphemisms (and indeed ‘noteuphemisms’ in the case of two characters adjusting their bedraggled costumes following a not so subtle woodland tryst) are absent or ignored. The signature subversive humour that has ensured the show’s longevity remains but for the most part it is never presented in a way that allows for greater exploration, ultimately underselling the text. An exception must be made for Coggin Galbreath and Miles Hurley’s divine turns as two Princes who both revel in chewing the scenery with a delicious chemistry which taps into ideas of homoerotic desires denied by the governing rules of toxic masculinity. The cast’s overall sound is pleasing and polished but at times they fail to realize the full dramatic potential of the musical numbers, which might sometimes benefit from being less ‘pleasing and polished’ and more harsh and gravely.

All this aside however, there is so much to enjoy and celebrate in this production that I feel I must apologise for coming across as churlish. There is a phenomenal amount of talent and hard-work evident across the production. Stephanie Herron as Cinderella nails her material with ease and gives an impressive performance to match, drawing in the audience with eyes which seem to shift from caring to inquisitive and, at times, even to obsessive, considering she is both the first and last to declare a ‘wish’ across the show. The Baker’s Wife, Millie Postle, gives a nuanced and sympathetic rendition of ‘Moments in the Woods’, crucial for the subsequent drama to be impactful, which it most certainly was. Her fictional husband, played by Daniel Jonusas, should also be commended for a performance which communicates his character’s insecurities with such ease that it seems almost trivial that he should then have to sing about them out loud. Hanna Lawson’s Red Riding Hood also emits both the required laughs and winces from the audience as she wholly commits to the caricature of a child who, shielded from the dangers of the world, is initially oblivious and spoilt, only to be perversely ‘enlightened’ in developments that trouble her morality. Behind the scenes, Mitchell-Bennett’s creative prop work is both a source of laughter in its knowing acknowledgement of budgetary constraints and smiles in its endearing homemade approach. Noemie Jouas also demonstrates an impressive versatility and industrious attitude in the scope of her bespoke costume work. Michael Medina, Sam Hatchell and Elizabeth Suen on percussion and keyboard instruments must also be congratulated for their impressive ensemble and flexibility when accommodation for performance timing was required.

While staging ‘in the round’ also might be easily dismissed as a fashionable gimmick imposing itself on a large number of recent StAge productions, it enhances this show in multiple ways. Foremost, the practical constraints of actors being forced to enter from the corner they last exited disturbs a continuity of space, which works in the show’s favour by making the woods a disorienting space from which any combination of characters could stumble upon each other. This also enables the decision to have actors already onstage as the audience enter makes the most of the show’s ‘immediate’ start, capitalised on further by the narrator as he teasingly delays that crucial ‘Once Upon a Time…’ by flicking through a book or munching at an apple. Some of the choreography also demonstrates an awareness of the set-up and strives to make it an integral and enhancing creative decision. 

There is clearly a lot to admire and celebrate then in this solid presentation of a modern classic. A couple of issues with microphones and sound balance, as well as some uncertain timings between singers and musicians in the earlier numbers, were clearly the result of first-night jitters and it is without a doubt that this show will only tighten and improve with each  subsequent performance. It is therefore without hesitation that I recommend you head on over to the StAge if you haven’t already and catch this fabulous production, which, whilst it may not explore the full potentials of the material, offers a wonderful introduction (or reminder) to just how accomplished this continually-relevant show really is.  

Stars: ****