Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Original Book: James Lapine
Director: Matthew Xia
Reviewer: Matt Forrest
It’s Christmas time, which invariably means that across the land, Panto season is upon us. All over the country pantomimes will be in full swing, most loosely based on the fairy tales so familiar with our childhood, but imagine a production which has interwoven four of these beloved stories and has a heartbeat as black as coal, well no need to imagine as Into the Woodsbegins its festive run at the Royal Exchange.
Into The Woods is one of Stephen Sondheim’s most successful and best-loved musicals; it was first performed in 1986 and later turned into a major motion picture in 2014. The story is that of a Baker and his Wife cursed never to have children, by a spiteful witch. In order to break the curse, they must retrieve a red cape, a milky white cow, a lock of golden hair, and a golden slipper, and hand them to the witch.
Interweaving in the tales Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood, we are introduced to the characters as they begin their journey into the woods that will change their lives forever. The first half sees the characters complete their individual quests and seemingly win their happy ever after, however, this is just the beginning of their problems as they awaken the wrath of a vengeful giant.
In essence, this is a modern day fairy tale, and like all good fairy tales it mixes dark and light masterfully. The scenes between Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf flit between sinister and hilarious with one of the darkest yet funniest conclusions I’ve witnessed (this reviewer won’t spoil it for you.) The desperation of the ugly sisters and the lengths they go to win over the Prince are fun while brutal at the same time.
The stand-out scene is the musical number Any Moment between the Prince (Michael Peavoy) and the Baker’s Wife (Amy Ellen Richardson), which in essentially an illicit seduction, which is hilarious. The production is filled with little absurd gags, including talking birds and a cow flashing a ‘bit of bling’, which adds to the fun.
This is an ambitious production, which just about matches its own lofty ambitions. The cast is excellent from the offset with the opening number, Into the Woods, filled with so much life and energy.
It’s difficult to single anyone for particular praise as they all work their socks off, Richardson as the Baker’s Wife is outstanding, her comic timing and expressions are a joy to watch. As is the performance of Michael Peavoy as both the Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince, who steals every scene he is in. He shows a remarkable range, with his portrayal of the sinister, predatory wolf, and the pompous, egotistical Prince. However, the cast works amazingly well together and this shines through.
The piece sets the bar high with its production values, Jenny Tiramani’s design is top class, as the Royal Exchange Theatre becomes the enchanted forest, the entire use of the theatre to create this magical world is captivating. The leaves falling from the ceiling as the giant approaches is a stand out moment.
The musical arrangements are top drawer and really help draw you into this magical world. The direction by Matthew Xia, is inventive without being flash, we go from laughter to heartbreak in the blink of an eye.
The main gripe is the pacing. The first act is flawless, truly a perfect piece of theatre, it just manages to get everything right, which impacts on the second half somewhat, musical number No One is Alone, seems drawn out and too long, while the slaying of the giant is somewhat underwhelming, given that what came before was truly magnificent. But these are minor quibbles for what is a fantastic production.
Into the Woodsis the perfect way to spend some time over the festive period, but possibly unsuitable for young children. This is a fun, entertaining production that will cast a spell on you… it may be the catchy Into the Woods signature tune, but it will leave you enchanted.
Runs until 16January2016 | Image: Jonathan Keenan