Into the Woods continues at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds until 25 June.
Rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
West Yorkshire Playhouse and Opera North have chosen the perfect vehicle for a co-production in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s fairytale mash-up.
Casting entirely from within the Chorus of Opera North gives artistic director James Brining a ready-made ensemble that knows each other’s work intimately. Musical director Jim Holmes plies his trade entirely offstage, but still holds the singers and 11-piece orchestra together in even the trickiest numbers, such as the patter song ‘Your Fault’.
The wide open spaces of the Playhouse stage are furnished as a convincing primary school classroom (minus any computers, though) which designer Colin Richmond opens up as the action moves into the woods.
The children’s presence forms one layer of audience as the characters drift between the desks, setting the scene under the control of Narrator/teacher Nicholas Butterfield. The children help to create the ‘play within a play’ approach.
The youngsters are, of course, our proxies, since the main thrust of the narrative is that we should all grow up and set aside some of the unrealistic expectations aroused in us by myths and fairy stories.
The funniest and most blatant of these is the attack on romantic love – ‘Agony’ – sung and reprised by Warren Gillespie and Ross McInroy as the two Princes.
The action is orchestrated by that most terrifying of fairy tale characters, the Witch: Claire Pascoe, in splendid form.
Act I is dominated by Helen Èvora’s Little Red Riding Hood. I often worry about opera singers working in other genres. There is a tendency to inflate the music to the high-flown levels of grand opera. Not so here. There is not a hint of pretension about Little Red Riding Hood as she goes about the business of feeding Granny and hunting wolves.
The character showing greatest growth is the Baker played by Dean Robinson. His convincing acting must have seemed heaven sent to the director when casting.
Unlike the disappointing 2014 film version, Brining manages to sustain audience attention throughout the declining pace of Act II. Bringing multiple moral lessons home to roost is not easy to pull off with theatre audiences, but the quest is successful here.
In a recent interview with the Guardian, Sondheim suggested he prefers British audiences because they ‘listen’ more to his lyrics. Well, we did listen – words and music – and loved every minute.
Readers may also be interested in:
Interview – West Yorkshire Playhouse artistic director James Brining