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.
Forthose not familiar with the premise of Sondheim and Lapine’s Into the Woods, the 1986 musical followsthe quest of a Baker and his Wife to reverse a witch’s curse, overcoming theirinfertility and their insecurities to have a child. The titular ‘woods’ serveas the arena, an ambivalent space that brings together characters and tropesfrom some of the most infamous European fairy tales and forces those navigatingits winding paths to question and confront the consequences of their actionsand goals. Typical of Sondheim’s oeuvre, every song along the way is a perfectlycrafted character piece. Successively, each song further tests the limits andpossibilities of the characters navigating the stories mapped out for them. Thisis not typical bedtime fare. Into theWoods is a show rich in symbolism and subtext, a dream text which canreally allow directors to test limits and take the material as far as it canpossibly go. Here lies possibly my major (and admittedly only) complaint.
DirectorCaelan 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 insome ways admirable, Woods fans whofound the 2014 Disney adaptation too ‘sanitised’ will no doubt be unable tofeel that several opportunities have been missed, especially those accustomedto the foregrounding of the darker and more subversive elements in the OriginalBroadway Production and even more so in the experimental 1990 Richard Jonesproduction (both work checking out on YouTube). This is not to say that theeuphemisms (and indeed ‘noteuphemisms’ in the case of two characters adjustingtheir bedraggled costumes following a not so subtle woodland tryst) are absent orignored. The signature subversive humour that has ensured the show’s longevityremains but for the most part it is never presented in a way that allows forgreater exploration, ultimately underselling the text. An exception must bemade for Coggin Galbreath and Miles Hurley’s divine turns as two Princes whoboth revel in chewing the scenery with a delicious chemistry which taps intoideas 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 torealize the full dramatic potential of the musical numbers, which mightsometimes benefit from being less ‘pleasing and polished’ and more harsh andgravely.
Allthis aside however, there is so much to enjoy and celebrate in this productionthat I feel I must apologise for coming across as churlish. There is aphenomenal amount of talent and hard-work evident across the production.Stephanie Herron as Cinderella nails her material with ease and gives animpressive performance to match, drawing in the audience with eyes which seemto 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 ‘Momentsin the Woods’, crucial for the subsequent drama to be impactful, which it mostcertainly was. Her fictional husband, played by Daniel Jonusas, should also becommended for a performance which communicates his character’s insecuritieswith such ease that it seems almost trivial that he should then have to singabout them out loud. Hanna Lawson’s Red Riding Hood also emits both therequired laughs and winces from the audience as she wholly commits to thecaricature of a child who, shielded from the dangers of the world, is initiallyoblivious and spoilt, only to be perversely ‘enlightened’ in developments thattrouble her morality. Behind the scenes, Mitchell-Bennett’s creative prop workis both a source of laughter in its knowing acknowledgement of budgetaryconstraints and smiles in its endearing homemade approach. Noemie Jouas alsodemonstrates an impressive versatility and industrious attitude in the scope ofher bespoke costume work. Michael Medina, Sam Hatchell and Elizabeth Suen onpercussion and keyboard instruments must also be congratulated for theirimpressive ensemble and flexibility when accommodation for performance timingwas required.
Whilestaging ‘in the round’ also might be easily dismissed as a fashionable gimmickimposing itself on a large number of recent StAge productions, it enhances thisshow in multiple ways. Foremost, the practical constraints of actors beingforced to enter from the corner they last exited disturbs a continuity ofspace, which works in the show’s favour by making the woods a disorientingspace from which any combination of characters could stumble upon each other.This also enables the decision to have actors already onstage as the audienceenter makes the most of the show’s ‘immediate’ start, capitalised on further bythe narrator as he teasingly delays that crucial ‘Once Upon a Time…’ byflicking through a book or munching at an apple. Some of the choreography alsodemonstrates an awareness of the set-up and strives to make it an integral andenhancing creative decision.
Thereis clearly a lot to admire and celebrate then in this solid presentation of amodern classic. A couple of issues with microphones and sound balance, as wellas 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 thatthis show will only tighten and improve with each subsequent performance. It is thereforewithout hesitation that I recommend you head on over to the StAge if youhaven’t already and catch this fabulous production, which, whilst it may notexplore the full potentials of the material, offers a wonderful introduction(or reminder) to just how accomplished this continually-relevant show reallyis.