Into the Woods

(Phoenix Ensemble)


One doesn’t often think of great theatre happening in a tin shed. With the foyer doubling as a green room and kids’ night football matches played over the road, the Pavilion Theatre in Beenleigh is unprepossessing, to say the least. The audience has a total of 85 seats to choose from, and a postage-stamp stage to look at. An orchestra would have to sit outside in the carpark. So might the chorus.

Despite such adversities, Phoenix Ensemble has created for our pleasure a well-balanced rendition of the Tony Award-winning fractured fairytale Into the Woods. In this version the orchestra is seamlessly replaced by two young and immensely competent keyboard players. Nick Ng and musical director Casey Chadwick are sequestered in a tiny corral to one side of the action. For 2.5 hours they squint over their blue-lit scores and show us what professional-level accompanying is all about.

First staged in 1987, this Sondheim/Lapine collaboration has two distinct halves, centred around the trials and tribulations of some of our favourite fairytale characters as they wrestle with their deepest fears and desires. From the beginning it is clear that these are no ordinary Brothers Grimm archetypes the characters are all three-dimensional, with strengths and foibles just as anyone might have. During Act 1 each character ventures into the Woods to fulfill their deepest wishes, and with intersecting stories and a few plot twists it starts to get complicated.

But the second half of the production is what lifts Into the Woods from the level of amusing parody to allegory, giving us gentle insights into the nature of growing up and personal responsibility. Sondheim and Lapine want us to know about the things that happen after “happily ever after”, and we definitely get to find out births, deaths, infidelities, revenge, mental illness and homicidal giants, to name but a few.

Suzanne Murphy’s direction of this complex piece is conservative yet effective. Obviously intimate with the script and previous renditions, she uses what has previously proved compelling while adding personal touches here and there. Murphy spends a lot of time creating specific moments which make for humorous watching. Audience-members should look for such gems as: Jack’s somewhat stunned cow Milky-White (complete with handle for ease of carrying), a certain Prince’s reaction to the sight of blood, and the shadow-box antics at Grandmother’s house. All this complements Sondheim’s tongue-in-cheek lyrics rather well (listen for the catchy “Agony” and its reprise and you’ll know what I mean).

This musical is partially dependent on tableaux to tell simultaneous stories, the effective use of which can be difficult in a small space. Murphy shifts the audience’s focus well using a combination of lighting, moving sets and good direction of actors. We definitely don’t get bored, and we always know where to look next. The wood-nymphs (who move sets, react to the action and then melt away, beguilingly played by Ayeshah Khan and Clare Humphries) are particularly well-integrated.

At the beginning some of the actors seemed a little thrown by the proximity of the audience on opening night, but they quickly settled down and adjusted the sizes of their characters to accommodate. In a small theatre actors breaking the fourth wall (interacting with the audience) may make themselves uncomfortable and the audience feel encroached upon; thankfully this only occurred once or twice during the show I saw and it didn’t detract from the overall effect. The only other puzzling thing was the odd trace of an American accent among certain members of the cast, which disappeared just as inexplicably later on. I put this down to avid watching of the Broadway DVD or listening to the CD during the rehearsal period.

Interestingly, the singing voices of this cast bear a striking resemblance to those of the original Broadway production as well. The vocal balance is good, with the ensemble singing being a highlight (for which congratulations must go to Tracey Hutley and Casey Chadwick).

Lionel Theunissen and Bruce Edwards as the superficial and competitive Princes turn in a professional-quality vocal performance that is enhanced by their onstage shenanigans. Chris Thomas (“The Steward”) supports them well with his atrocious French accent and expansive gesturing.

The interactions between Jack and his mother (ably played by newcomer Scott Johnson and the more experienced Johanne Castle) are a delight, particularly Jack’s mum’s escalating reactions to Jack’s well-meaning ineptitudes. The Baker and his wife (Luke and Tracey Hutley) have an easy onstage chemistry that carries the show forward.

Little Red Riding Hood’s transformation from naïf to knife-wielding hoodlum works well, and Danika Saal’s voice (both as the Hood and as Cinderella’s mother) is lovely. Theunissen does another star turn as the sleazy vinyl-clad wolf who corrupts her, although his wolfish overtures are alas a little muffled under his getup.

Likewise, Kathy Eisentrager’s soaring soprano is a little hindered by the isolating surrounds of Rapunzel’s tower (which is possibly minus foldback speakers). I’m certain this minor issue was unavoidable and to do with the physical nature of the theatre rather than the persons involved. No one will forget Richard Murphy as the tasty Bond-esque Narrator (though he is slightly less zesty as the Mysterious Man), while Trish Allen gives Cinderella an interesting maternal twist in this version.

It is entertaining to see the versatile Heather Scott get into the challenging role of the Witch (originally made famous by Bernadette Peters). Heather’s “Last Midnight” had the audience on the edge of their seats, and was a good contrast to the gentler “Lament”. Given Heather’s evident performing abilities, this reviewer would have liked to have seen her take a couple more risks in this role. I’m confident that through this run, she will progressively make the part more her own.

Into the Woods is always quite an experience, and everybody in this strong team from Phoenix adds to it. The sets are nothing less than inspired, especially given the size of the stage and the enormous demands placed upon it. Ray Aubrey’s scenic art beautifully captures the dark mystery of the woods, and this is further enhanced by good use of lighting effects.

In summing up, this reviewer is about to become uncharacteristically directorial: if you’re going to see only one show this month, think twice about paying $50-plus per ticket to see a professional show when you can pay the Phoenix Ensemble $18 to see something just as good (albeit in slightly less luxurious surrounds). Do not bring your children there is blood, scary stuff and the odd “adult concept”. Do bring your friends all of them, even the ones who don’t usually like musicals. It’s worth it.

— Ruth Bridgstock
(Performance seen: Thu 10th July 2003)