Theatre Royal, Bath – until 10 September 2022
Following the death last year of inarguably the greatest musical theatre artist of his generation, Stephen Sondheim, Into The Woods seems to be cropping up with the most regularity in terms of revivals. Not surprising really: it’s more immediately accessible than Sunday or Pacific Overtures, more fun than Passion, less terrifying than Sweeney, less precious than Night Music and more family friendly than Company, Merrily or Follies.
With its depiction of a bunch of beloved fairy tale characters (albeit given a decidedly Manhattanite slant) such as Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack heading off “into the woods” to sort out their respective stories, it has, on the surface at least, a cosy familiarity coupled with the tart ingenuity that characterises much of Sondheim’s work, and this is the only one of his oeuvre in decades to receive a big screen adaptation, unless you count the recent Spielberg West Side Story.
Into The Woods is a cracking piece of entertainment, emotionally and comedically satisfying, wildly clever but not intimidatingly so, full of vivid, relatable characters and with a sprinkling of unique magic that is equal parts Broadway and the Brothers Grimm (Jonathan Tunick’s peerless orchestrations – beautifully pared down for this production – undoubtedly help with this). It’s also subversive and unsettling: killing off probably the most relatable character half way through act two remains one of the most audacious things I’ve ever seen in a musical.
Terry Gilliam and Leah Hausman’s production at Theatre Royal Bath certainly embraces those aspects of the piece, despite being pretty as a picture. That this staging is one of two high profile productions currently on either side of the Atlantic is testament to the durability and timelessness of Sondheim and book writer James Lapine’s creation.
The two versions could not be more different, and the British one is by far the most opulent and visually imaginative. Lear deBessonet’s Broadway show is essentially a transfer of the City Center concert that got the kind of reviews artists and publicists can usually only dream about, featuring a cast of Broadway veterans and debutants, all utter perfection, and a career-redefining performance by Sara Bareilles as the Baker’s Wife. The magnificent orchestra in NYC is onstage, the set is stripped right back, the costumes are basic and there are barely any wigs used… and yet the relationships are explored on such detail, the characterisations are so rich and the acting is so damn good that there is no way this life-enhancing, transporting experience can be described as “just” concert, proving that with material and casting this good you don’t really need all the bells and whistles.
By contrast, Gilliam and Housman and their team (set by Jon Bausor, costumes by Antony McDonald, lighting by Mark Henderson) hurl everything at the wall. It hasn’t quite found it’s footing yet (it’s a beast of a show at the best of times, before one even starts putting special effects, puppetry and huge set pieces into it, and some of the book scenes lack focus) but when it does iron out the creases, this will be an Into The Woods for the ages. It’s already wildly exciting visually and contains moments of rare delight. The invention, sheer theatrical verve and sometimes sick humour are something to savour.
The framing device of having a child playing with her Pollock’s Toy Theatre is an inspired one: Jon Bausor’s eye-popping set turns the entire proscenium arch and stage into the toy theatre. The black and white nursery aesthetic punctuated with riots of stunning colour topped off with a giant cuckoo clock marking each midnight, looks at times like an homage to Richard Jones’s original 1990 London production.
There are issues however: some of the delicious comedy that is right there in the script goes for surprisingly little; Julian Bleach, giving basically the same performance as he delivered in The Grinning Man and Shockheaded Peter, seems so much a part of the fairy tale milieu that his protestations that he is commenting on the story not part of it, make little sense; by contrast, when the gloriously disagreeable Witch of Nicola Hughes (who’s first entrance is a total coup de theatre, and who sings like a dream) transforms, it’s into a modern power suit with handbag, thereby making her look like she’s in a completely different world from the other characters, with their elaborate wigs and gorgeously fanciful costumes. It’s confusing and does little to help this fine singing actress, or us, to find the beautiful version of the Witch, and she could also afford to punch up the bleak humour and the sadness once transformed.
No reservations at all about the terrific pairing of Rhashan Stone and Alex Young as the Baker and his wife, he a lovely everyman with a sweet innocence that makes him ill-prepared for what the stories throw at him, she a clear-eyed pragmatist with zero sentimentality and oodles of warmth. Young’s phrasing and ability to find new colours in the lyrics and character demonstrate why she is fast becoming one of the foremost British Sondheim interpreters of her generation.
Another Sondheim expert is Gillian Bevan, here tremendously affecting as a more melancholy than usual Jack’s mother, and Audrey Brisson is a lovable, athletic Cinderella even if her voice isn’t quite the lush soprano ideal for this role. Equally athletic and lovable is Barney Wilkinson’s Jack, who delivers his signature ‘Giants In The Sky’ number perched atop a gigantic clock face suspended in mid air. It’s one of a series of stunning stage pictures, all watched over by a Greek chorus of woodland creatures that look like something out of Beatrix Potter.
Nathanael Campbell and Henry Jenkinson are great fun as a pair of campy, self-absorbed Princes, forever pursuing maidens that are just out of reach. Lauren Conroy’s grave Glaswegian Little Red Riding Hood looks fragile but has a cool detachment that shades into considerable ferocity. I also loved Alexandra Waite Roberts’s venomous Stepmother. In both the New York and UK productions, Jack’s cow Milky White (here, Faith Prendergast) comes perilously close to stealing the show.
You know you’re watching a Sondheim musical when the curtain rises on act two to reveal a bunch of disgruntled characters singing about how they never thought they could be this happy, and all through gritted teeth. Melodically lovely though much of the music is, it’s the brilliance of Sondheim’s lyrics that really distinguishes this score. The rather hackneyed notion that Sondheim’s work, however ingenious, is somehow chilly and lacking emotion is blown out of the water by the heartcatching simplicity of the bereaved Baker’s duet with his estranged father, ‘No More’, which is surely as moving an expression of loss, despair and ultimately acceptance as was ever written.
If the ending, including the standard ‘No One Is Alone’, veers towards sentimentality (certainly not an accusation one could make of Sondheim’s earlier works) that cosy acceptance is still hard won. Even if you’re familiar with James Lapine’s superb book, the aforementioned act two death of a lovable character and the shock waves and melancholy shadows that generates remains shocking in both current production. At the Broadway performance I attended, this moment provoked audible howls of outrage and horror, in Bath there was an appalled silence.
In the words of Cinderella, “opportunity is not a lengthy visitor” and this run ends on 10th September but given the talent, imagination and budget lavished on it, it’s unlikely that this is the end of the road for this captivating crowd pleaser: surely a transfer announcement is imminent. All it needs is a few tweaks, a bit more polish and humour, and a West End theatre.