Into the Woods continues at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until 16 January.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
Beloved by many, Stephen Sondheim’s much-revived exploration of storybook happy ever afters is, nonetheless, a middle-ranking entry in the pre-eminent US musical maestro’s canon – many places above his rare misfires but quite a few rungs below the heights of a Company or Sweeney Todd. It remains a brilliantly conceived oddity – a fairy tale for grown-ups with all the trappings and tropes of a family musical but with a distinctly kiddie unfriendly edge (even when you consider the grisly and, indeed, Grimm origins of these fables). This slight issue of who the show is intended for – heightened by the Royal Exchange’s decision to present it as its seasonal offering – is now exacerbated by last year’s somewhat Disney-fied big-screen Disney adaptation that trimmed the show’s more extreme non-PG elements and story strands, and sensitively exorcised some of the songs and reprises.
But this handsome, exquisitely staged Royal Exchange production adheres to the unfiltered original. So, despite the presence of Cinderella and Rapunzel, it certainly ain’t for little ones, although older children with longer attention spans might enjoy a show that out Shreks Shrek in its skewering of fairy tale conventions. James Lapine’s book, inspired by the 1976 psychology text The Uses of Enchantment, draws heavily on the repercussions of wish-fulfillment and potent power of these age-old stories (as Gillian Bevan’s pitch-perfect Witch sings in the Act I finale: “Careful the things you say, children will listen.”) There’s a lot going on under the hood – and not just of the Red Riding variety – but the best productions embrace the wit and verve that underpin Sondheim’s music and lyrics and Lapine’s syncopated half-sung speeches that sweep you along, even if you skirt over the sometimes heavy-handed pop psychology subtext which drags out its rather over-stuffed second half.
And so it is with director Matthew Xia’s production, which serves up a fast-paced and frothily entertaining concoction, nailing the comedy that liberally peppers the piece while still managing to deliver on the emotional depths. This production’s other masterstroke – beyond the performances, which are universally excellent – is the way Xia and movement director Jason Pennycooke zip the large cast onto and around the stage, making full use of the Exchange’s in-the-round, multi-leveled playing area. Designer Jenny Tiramani’s lush forest settings also make the titular woods a literally all-encompassing den of temptation and iniquity, personified by Michael Peavoy’s daringly under-dressed, furry codpiece-clad Wolf.
Roles are cleverly doubled up, as in previous incarnations, so as well as delivering an even more overtly sexual ‘Hello Little Girl’ than usual, Peavoy also gets to sing the show’s other standout number – comparatively, as Sondheim generally doesn’t do showstoppers – duetting to amusing affect with Marc Elliott on the Prince’s gloriously witty lament ‘Agony’.
The creative team’s decision to place proceedings in a contemporary Manchester setting is quickly dispensed with, with only David Moorst’s Jack, Natasha Cottriall’s Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella’s Big Fat Gypsy Wedding-attired ugly sisters (Maimuna Memon and Michaela Bennison) retaining local accents. The hotch-potch of accents continues with Alex Gaumond’s American twang as the Baker and Amy Ellen Richardson’s plumby, jolly hockey sticks Baker’s Wife, but the couple combine so harmoniously on the plaintive ‘It Takes Two’ and embody the trauma of childlessness so well that you forgive the mismatch, especially when you hear Gaumond’s warm, Josh Groban-esque baritone.
At a lengthy three hours long, it will be too over-rich for some tastes, but the clear dedication to producing something genuinely transformative, plus the joy of hearing – and getting to see – such a well-drilled and integrated eight-strong live band and the totally committed, top drawer cast make it a feast worth tucking into to.
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Interview – Gillian Bevan goes Into the Woods via Manchester