This February something darkly enchanting lurks in Theatre on the Bay: Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s seductive musical, Into The Woods, is set to enthral audiences who are willing to drop their guard and allow themselves to be led off the wishful thinking path. Into The Woods is a mocking reminder of why the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault's tales are just that, grim. However, within the hidden grimness —the cautionary aspect of this musical— one finds purpose and even hope in its comical, gloomy, sharp, and shrewd revelations.
The related curses of a once-upon-a-time beautiful witch and a childless baker and his wife converge to put in place a sequence of events that sees Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Jack, The Wolf, Prince Charming and many other fairy tale characters cross their path as they set their sights on a quest that could easily be a fantasy video-gamers dream concept.
The first chanted and often reprised words, ‘I wish…’, lead the audience into and through the Woods with the introduction of a myriad of well-known fairy tales, all representing two sides of the same coin, or rather bean. The undertone of Into The Woods echoes with a warning we easily forget once we embrace the adult perspective of life driven by the self: Be careful what you wish for, it may just comes true.
At the beginning of this musical, the production can feel and sound a bit overwhelming to those not used to the fantastically elaborate musical stylings of a Sondheim; here even more so, as it is matched with an equally intricate book by Lapine. The trick is to try and isolate every character, especially when they're singing all at once, as music is the identifier or key to unlocking the magic of it all: The so expressed ideas (or sounds) associated with specific characters function as interwoven musical Easter eggs that help you spot their entrances, and follow their emotions and character development. With so many different characters' storylines calling for introductions, and even beginnings within conclusions, this is not a short musical. But, if you allow yourself to invest in the journey of the characters, the theatrical pay-off at the end is great.
When people refer to Into The Woods as dark, that's darkness with depth: It’s suggestive, it’s deceptive, it’s sometime even strikingly unnerving when you realise how evocative this musical’s content actually is. The perfect example of this is the innocence-lost dynamics between Red Riding Hood and The Wolf, powerfully worded by Red Riding Hood (Megan Rigby) when she sings:
But he seemed so nice.
And he showed me things.
Many beautiful things,
That I hadn’t thought to explore.
They were off my path,
So I never had dared.
I had been so careful,
I never had cared.
And he made me feel excited—
Well, excited and scared.
In a sense, this also emphasises the personal-, family-, and community-driven conflict of opinions and perspectives throughout Into The Woods.
Steven Stead’s direction shows deference to and an understanding of the juxtaposed Act One and Act Two vision of Sondheim and Lapine’s award-winning production. Their multifaceted musical is not for the faint-hearted performer —in fact, both the book and the lyrics are so wordy, and the music so fast paced, that you may find yourself utterly impressed by the fact that the cast sings their way through it all without sounding breathless or looking weary. Apart from the ensembles unquestionable musical proficiency, credit must also be given to musical director, Drew Bakker, for his clear guidance.
Aided by the directions of Stead and Bakker, the performers captivate with their exploration of the wish, bean, and fanfare motifs celebrated by Sondheim’s score, which all collectively help present the Woods as a metaphor for life.
Amongst the already talented and first-rate all South African cast, Kate Normington (The Witch), Earl Gregory (The Baker) and Zak Hendrikz (The Wolf & Cinderella’s Prince) are truly exceptional. The puppetry work by Brandon Moulder and Naret Loots is enchanting and impressive too.
The set design by Greg King and lighting design by Tina Le Roux accentuate the seductive elements that gradually reveal itself as the playground for the characters who venture into or stumbles through the Woods. The set, with impressive revolves and reveals, make optimum use of the depth and height of the stage.
The suggestive sound design by Mark Malherbe makes you forget you’re in a theatre (you almost expect a giant’s foot to decend from the heavens at any given moment), while the costume design by Neil Stuart Harris speaks of childlike vibrance that creates the impression that the characters stepped right off the pages of an illustrated fairy tale compilation.
This staging of Sondheim and Lapine’s Into The Woods gives expression to it as entertainment with an appetite and bite —you just don’t necessarily know that you're being bitten until two thirds into the show. The production tricks you into a false sense of security, to very elaborately reveal with a twist that no one ever promised magic and wishes were all things happily-ever-after. Yes, Disney, here’s looking at you!
Into The Woods lures you in with the comfort and familiarity of the Disney-type version of ‘happiness’ and cleverly entraps you in the darkest corner of the Wood to hold up a mirror and reveal the true disenchantment of it all. This vision, especially as revealed in Act Two, makes Into The Woods so much more than a parody; it's rather a metaphorical musical exploration of life, or what we so casually refer to as adulting. In fact, an Act Two exchange between The Witch and The Narrator (Michael Richard) perfectly summarises the spirit of this production…
The Narrator: You need an objective observer to pass the story along.
The Witch: Some of us don’t like the way you’ve been telling it.
As this is a fairy tale for adults, and one that's quite a feat to perform with the level of energy and commitment as was on display during the opening night performance, I suspect this Into The Woods will only get better as its Cape Town run settles and progresses.
Go take a walk in the Woods with the powerhouse ensemble of the Pieter Toerien and KicksArt presented Into The Woods at Theatre on the Bay until 2 March 2019. Tickets are available online through Computicket.
And remember, ‘Careful the tale you tell. That is the spell. Children will listen.’