Into the Woods

(Harvest Rain Theatre)


Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine

Pro-am production, Harvest Rain Theatre Company

“The woods are just trees, the trees are just wood; no need to be afraid there There’s something in the glade there!”

Stephen Sondheim knows the ambiguity and fear that lurk at the heart of every human experience, and although the woods may be the place where you go to work out the solution to your problems (exactly what Shakespeare suggested 400 years ago in As You Like It), the Quest is not always an easy one, and there are challenges to be met and overcome along the way.

The Brothers Grimm knew it too, and although most of us know their fairy tales only in the sanitised versions which of us, as children, was told that the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella had their eyes picked out by birds? the original stories were moral tales for children about the continual battle between good and evil, with good not always winning.

In his brilliant parable
Into the Woods
, Sondheim (although we shouldn’t discount the input of James Lapine, who wrote the story line) takes a number of the old fairy tales Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel and Red Riding Hood and weaves them into a magical narrative, while adding a story of his own, about the curse on the childless Baker and the Baker’s Wife.

To go to the festival, sell the cow, find your true love and kill the wolf, you have to go into the woods, and although you learn many lessons there, the sub-text can be very dark indeed. Little Red Riding Hood, on her way to Grandmother’s house, was callous enough to begin with “for all that I know, she’s already dead” but after her dark but thankfully unspecific encounter with the wolf, she has learned many valuable things, that “although scary is exciting, nice is different than good” and “isn’t it nice to know a lot … and a little bit not.”

The late primary kids whom I took to the show thought this was wonderful, especially as she swapped her red riding cloak for a wolf skin that she made from the dead wolf, and became a ball-breaking feminist (although not in those exact words), but for those who are wiser in the ways of the world, the implications here are very disturbing.

And so it is with many of the stories. All is not what it seems, and although by the end of the first act all the characters have returned from the woods and achieved their dreams, the second act proves that “ever after” doesn’t necessarily means “happy ever after”. There are prices to be paid, consequences to consider, rethinking to be done, and even the nature of Good and Evil to be reconsidered.

Who says Giants and Ogres are always bad? Shrek has since taught us that we mustn’t judge by appearances, and perhaps Sondheim, with this 20-year-old show, is the precursor of the Disney movie. (Slow learners, some Americans.)

Morality is not absolute, and all things must be considered in context, and although our sanitised fairy tales tell us that it’s simple, the Brothers Grimm in the original versions of these stories know that it ain’t necessarily so and so does Sondheim.

That said, how should we view this production? The musical isn’t really for young children, in spite of the familiar content. It’s a morality tale for the ethically mature or those who need to become so. That means it’s ideal for teenagers, and most adults, but the second half is too dark, too disturbing for very young children, especially as there aren’t as many cheerful songs in it.

Frankly, if I had little kids here, I’d take them home at the end of the first half. It may seem heretical to leave a play at interval, but the first act is self-contained and ties up all the loose ends very satisfactorily. There’s even a notice on the door telling the interval audience: “Wait, there’s more!” But pre-schoolers may well have had enough by then. Seventy-five minutes is about their attention span, and the first act does hold the promise of happy-ever-after, which is what children of this age need to believe. Time enough to rob them of their innocence when they’ve had more experience of Big Bad Wolves in whatever kind of clothing.

The rest of us, though, will be intellectually and morally challenged by the second act, which shows us a world where death, destruction and misery cannot be so easily overcome. Individual happiness is not assured, and what people wished for may, when they get it, turn out not to be what they really wanted. “Don’t wish too much for what you want, or you might get it …” as the popular song has it.

But at whatever level you take it, the production deserves nothing but the highest praise. Director Tim O’Connor has assembled an all-star cast, with nary a weak link. Whether it’s the princes (James Dobinson and Michael Priest and do they play the twin wolves as well?) camping it up as they prance across the stage; the hair-tearing innocence of Callum Mansfield as the simple-minded Jack, who doesn’t want a lover, but a mother and a pet; or the wicked arrogance of Naomi Price as the born-again Little Red Riding Hood: they all bring their special talents to the roles they play.

Not only can every member of the cast sing, they sing superbly; the sets and costumes are spectacular; and whoever created the makeup and wigs deserves a gold medal.

To mention everyone by name would make too long a review, but there are a few people who stand out among a shimmering cast. Joanna Butler, as the Baker’s Wife, has an earthy simplicity that makes this potentially dull woman into a victim we can all identify with, especially when she asks pitifully the question that has always plagued the human race is it always or, is it never and? My heart bled for the Baker, who suffers the curse brought upon him by his father (a very Old Testament theme), and who has to learn that the baby he has always wanted brings great suffering with it. Mark Conaghan shapes this character into a multi-faceted human being, who sums up in himself the still sad music of humanity.

When the scary Witch loses her power as well as her ugly features, so that she too becomes a victim, Kate Joseph makes us realise the terrible price that sometimes has to be paid to make a dream come true: and Bil Campbell Hurry as the Narrator is Ariel, Puck and Prospero rolled into one

What a brilliant musical this is! For many years I’ve though that if Mozart were alive today, he’d be writing Sondheim musicals, but Into the Woods makes me think for the first time that Sondheim is a Shakespeare for our troubled times, presenting us with truths that we don’t want to hear but have to face up to if we are to become fully human.

And if you need a tiny glimmer of light in this dark and seemingly hopeless world, there’s just one song that perhaps we can rely on the final song that Cinderella’s dead mother comforts her with “someone is on your side… you are not alone, no one is alone.”

And if you can believe that, then, with the help of Sondheim, Shakespeare and even possibly God, you can take this genius of a musical on whatever level you want, and believe that there is truth in fairy tales after all.

Director and choreography Tim O’Connor, designer Joshua MacIntosh, musical/vocal director Peter Laughton

Playing Wednesday–Saturday at 7.30pm, Saturday matinees at 2pm, until 27 August 2005

Running time: About 2 hours 30 minutes, including interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Thu 28th July 2005)