Into the Woods is a modern twist on the Grimm fairy tales, bringing together the characters from the classic stories of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel into a new narrative about a baker and his wife, their longing for a family of their own and their dealings with the witch next door who has cursed them to remain childless.
The melodic and lyrical genius of Stephen Sondheim has historically appealed to a more selective audience within amateur dramatic circles; critically acclaimed performances have rarely corresponded with box office success. However, due to the more recent popular film adaptations of Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods, the brilliance and intricacies of his challenging compositions have reached a new and wider audience, as reflected in a fairly reasonable and diverse opening night house. Sondheim is one of my all-time favourite composers and lyricists, so I was really looking forward to seeing a live performance of one of his more enchanting, fantasy-based musicals. Unfortunately, I was left feeling ultimately frustrated and disappointed by a production that promised so much, but had too many flaws to overlook and lacked dynamic pace.
Sondheim’s music is notoriously challenging and unforgiving to any weakness in vocal or musical ability and it is to MTS’s credit that the actors sing well, particularly during the ensemble pieces, and the orchestra, under the baton of conductor Ian Hooper, play beautifully. There is no doubting the work, effort and focus that the actors have put into this and there are many good elements to enjoy. The cast of twenty ‘principals’ gel and sing well together and it is perhaps churlish to pick out individuals in an otherwise ensemble production, but I did particularly enjoy the performances of Maddie Ellis (Cinderella) and Emma Clammer (Baker’s Wife). Tom Paris’ set design is strong, opening up to promise a storybook setting to reflect the narrative. The costumes are mostly very good, vividly depicting the well-known characters from the famous fairy tales.
Sadly, Samuel W R Quested’s direction doesn’t do justice to the actors or the set or Sondheim’s creativity. Without a choreographer, much of the movement seems to be random and lacking in purpose, intent or logic. The innate comedy has such a heavy-handed approach to it that it becomes a parody of itself to the detriment of the overall effect. Conversely, the darker undertones of death and destruction are almost brushed aside and the transformation of the witch is totally underwhelming (both in creativity and characterisation).
Both the quality and the balance of the sound proved to be problematical on the opening night; hopefully, this can be rectified for the following performances so that the effort and musicality from the performers can be truly appreciated. The thrust stage invites much more creative lighting angles and atmospheric effects that were sadly lacking, particularly during heightened moments of drama, tension and imminent danger. The potential of the set is underutilised. The witch’s mask highlights the challenges of acting in a mask, where voices can become muffled and heightened body language is required to counterbalance the lack of available facial expressions.
It is a production that will polarise the die-hard Sondheim fans: you’ll either love it or you’ll hate it, certainly not be ambivalent towards it!
Runs until 8 July; evening performances 7.30, Saturday matinée 2.15.