Into the Woods
Dreams and desires collide with dark comedy in a beautifully staged production of Sondheim’s fairy tale musical at the Crescent Theatre in Birmingham, directed by Keith Harris.
American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim was a genius. His musicals sound uniquely rich and complex but what elevates them to great art is the wisdom and generosity of his writing: I always leave his shows feeling understood. He somehow manages to highlight our faults (our terrible selfishness and pride, our jealousy and envy, our capacity for malice) but recognise our innate goodness. To watch a Sondheim show is to be supportively reminded that we are all beautifully flawed.
With book by James Lapine, the story cleverly interweaves the plots of several well-known fairy tales. The set design (Keith Harris and Colin Judges) transports us deep into a beautiful but unsettling woodland populated by painted trees reminiscent in style of Arthur Rackham, the original illustrator of the ‘Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales’. A series of changing projections of shadowy woodland scenes add further depth to the stage.
Connecting the fairy tales is the central story of a childless baker and his wife and their quest to lift a witch’s curse which prevents them from starting a family. Other fairy tales – ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Rapunzel’ – are interwoven into their journey to find and bring the witch four objects: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold. The first act focuses on the fulfilment of the characters’ wishes, the second on the consequences of getting what they wished for.
Mark Payne’s performance as the baker is endearing and there is a tender connection between him and his wife, beautifully acted and sung by Tiffany Cawthorne. ‘It Takes Two’ is a first act highlight as the couple rediscover their connection (‘you’ve changed, you’re daring, you’re different in the woods’).
Kimberley Maynard is a wonderful witch: insecurity and loneliness simmer under the surface of her aggressiveness and sarcasm. Her love for Hannah Devereux’s isolated Rapunzel (impressive soprano) and desire to protect her from the harsh realities of the world is something many parents in the audience will recognise. ‘Our Little World’, a duet in the first act, is both funny and painfully sad – ‘Children are a blessing…if you know where they are.’
Cinderella’s journey to independence is beautifully conveyed by Helena Stanway in a strong vocal performance. ‘On the Steps of the Palace’ is pitch perfect and so cleverly captures the confusion of being suddenly on the verge of realising your dreams and doubting whether you really want them. Alisdair Hurst and Mark Horne are excellent princes, their duet of ‘Agony’ providing one of the night’s vocal and comic highlights as an emotional pain competition plays out between these ridiculous men.
Hannah Lyons brings some wonderful moments of comic timing to her role as Little Red Riding Hood, a naïve but fearless young girl whose journey into the stomach of a wolf helps her to appreciate that not everything is as it seems in life and the adult world is full of ambiguity. ‘I Know Things Now’ is delivered with a knowing smile and the gentle humour of the lyrics shines through: ‘Isn’t it nice to know a lot? And a little bit not.’
Luke Plimmer’s Jack, of Beanstalk fame, is terrific in a performance which combines an endearing slowness of wit with an irresistible charm and innate goodness. His love for his cow, Milky White, is tender and convincing and the solo ‘Giants in the Sky’ is sung beautifully. Despite their fraught relationship, there’s a wonderful connection between him and his mother, brilliantly played by Steph Urquhart.
A talented cast, however, is not enough to successfully stage this challenging show. Under Gary Spruce’s musical direction, the company are ably supported by a live orchestra who fill the theatre with Sondheim’s wonderful music. ‘Into the Woods’ is a special musical: complex, multi-layered and a huge challenge for any company to stage, let alone an amateur one. The Crescent rise to the considerable challenge of staging this modern classic - Birmingham is lucky to have such a professional company in the heart of the city.
‘No one is alone’ is the lyric which lingers long after the curtain comes down. A life-affirming and ultimately uplifting show which deserves to sell out every night.
‘Into the Woods’ is playing at the Crescent Theatre in Birmingham from 29th April to 6th May 2023.