Into the Woods
QPAC Concert Hall
October 1 – 4 2015
Reviewed by Xanthe Coward
I met my husband during a production of Into the Woods. Have I told you this story? Probably. Poppy delights in the delivery, repeating it with a straight face precisely the way Sam tells it, and telling it proudly on Harvest Rain’s opening night to a random woman pre-show. “Daddy was the handsome prince and mummy was the witch and apparently, he says, nothing’s changed.” (You’ll have to wait to read the rest of the story. It’s not all Poppy-appropriate).
Harvest Rain uses the tagline, “You’ve seen the film, now experience the magic live on stage” to promote their production of the Sondheim-Lapine favourite. I was one of the eighties children to whom Michael Schulman referred in The New Yorker last year (although I was never too good for Lloyd Webber!), who felt excited and scared about the release of Disney’s movie version of Into the Woods, and then felt disappointed after finally seeing it. HR’s production, produced and directed by Tim O’Connor, doesn’t stray too far from the original Broadway version, which you can still find online. This is a good thing. When I was growing up we wore out a VHS tape of the first television broadcast of this brilliant PBS American Playhouse performance.
In 1989, from Thursday, May 23 to Saturday, May 25 the full original Broadway cast (with the exception of Cindy Robinson as Snow White instead of Jean Kelly) reunited for only three performances for the taping of the musical in its entirety for the Season 10 premiere episode of PBS’s American Playhouse and first aired on March 15, 1991. The show was filmed professionally with seven cameras on the set of the Martin Beck Theater in front of an audience with the with certain elements changed from its original nightly counterpart only slightly for the recording in order to better fit the screen rather than the stage such as the lighting, minor costume differences, and others. There were also pick up shots not filmed in front of an audience for various purposes. This video has since been released on Tape and DVD and on occasion, remastered and re-released. This video is considered to be the original Into The Woods.
In defiance of previous, more lavish productions though, O’Connor makes a point of doing a couple of things very differently, depending largely on our imaginations and the skill of the actors, particularly in terms of the props used. Into the Woods is still one of the most challenging musicals to get right, with a complex score and a deeply nuanced book full of familiar fairytale characters making not-so-familiar decisions and changing the course of those well-known tales forever.
In a masterstroke (and a great improvement on the use of the same milling and seething and dressing device used in Jesus Christ Superstar), O’Connor establishes old-school storytelling in the style of Shakespeare’s mechanicals and retains, in the tradition of Pippin’s Leading Player, the use of the Narrator (the likeable Dean Vince) not only as storyteller, but also as a sort of master of ceremonies, seeking and presenting props, and gently persuading characters to act within the narrative bounds. He never leaves the stage…until he is pushed. The Baker (Eddie Perfect) and the Baker’s Wife (Rachael Beck) respond to the detail of his tale as he introduces it, Jack (Tom Oliver) takes from him a bicycle for a cow, Little Red Riding Hood (Kimberley Hodgson) loads him up with armfuls of bread, and Cinderella (Georgina Hopson) looks to him for reassurance as she goes to the tree in which her mother’s spirit resides (Natalie Greer). Vince is integral; he’s the golden thread weaving all characters together and should he find a little more Ben Vereen-ness by the end of the season (it’s a short one – one weekend!), he’ll serve as the perfect anchor too.
I wonder when we’ll see HR’s Pippin? I’d love to see that!
There is more movement than necessary in this production (not least during the Witch’s lament – somebody tell those stepsisters to stay perfectly still! #focus101), however; it’s without the usual impressive choreography from Callum Mansfield. This can almost be forgiven for there’s very little space on stage, in fact, barely enough for the happy couples at the end of Act 1 to gallop across it. Josh McIntosh’s multi-level design forces the action downstage, with several steps leading to an upper level (above an underutilised cavern partially concealed by a hessian curtain) taking centre stage and claiming much of the space. The only characters that use the steps to good effect (and without inducing barely audible gasps of the “don’t fall!” variety) are The Baker, Cinderella and Cinderella’s Prince (Steve Hirst). With the orchestra hidden behind “the woods” (though we barely glimpse them they sound sensational under the competent hand of Jason Barry-Smith), ultimately the darker subtext of the setting is lost, as all are pushed forward into Andrew Meadows’ brighter, whiter lights.
Obviously I’m partial to the Handsome Prince archetype – I married one after all – but it’s not only this bias (and a slight resemblance to Russell Crowe in one of his better roles, in Master and Commander – must be the wig) that makes Hirst memorable. He nails it, and does a decent job of the Wolf as well, losing none of the original dark intent of this role, a flicker of the other, particularly in the physicality, and presenting a fine match for Hodgson’s spunky Little Red. Hirst’s sonorous vocals and confidant comedy (tongue placed firmly in cheek) are reminiscent of his Sir Galahad, of course, and are perfectly suited here. Despite being glossed over (for the sake of the children, just as Jack’s song seems to be?), his moment in the woods with Beck is delightful, and predictable in every arrogant male conquest sense of the word (insert eye roll here). By making
a little a lot more of his princely entrances and exits he might have an award nom worthy body of work. Just saying.
It’s true that Hodgson has the plum role and in it she too is a stand out, absolutely gorgeous and genuinely hilarious, landing on every one-liner, providing much of Sondheim’s carefully placed light relief and witty wickedness in the only truly original take on a character in this production. Hodgson brings the moral tale intact but it’s repackaged for a new audience, fresh and funny and poignant. A graduate in 2013, Hodgson represents the bright talent and intuitive approach to performance that the Queensland Conservatorium of Music is nurturing under the guidance of Paul Sabey and co.
Another Qld Con grad (2014) and a finalist for this year’s Rob Guest Endowment Award, the disarmingly lovely Hopson effortlessly carries the Cinderella story and gives us one of the most insightful and mature readings ever of On the Steps of the Palace, which is no mean feat! Hopson, both vocally and emotionally, handles one of Sondheim’s greater musical challenges with care and consideration for this character’s decision making process. As well as some sweet moments between she and Beck (A Very Nice Prince), Hopson sets up Cinderella’s part in the relationship with the Prince, preparing us nicely for their inevitable (agreeable) decision to go their separate ways, as some of us must.
Eddie Perfect, Rachael Beck (these two really are lovely together), Penny Farrow and Tom Oliver also work just beyond stereotypes to bring us the reality of being childless and penniless, although Oliver would do well to drop the accent and give us the Australian voiced adult version of Giants In the Sky, which might give us a greater arc between the initial wonder and final realisation (and satisfaction) of Jack…and a valid reason to view him as Dash Kruck’s only real competition for the title role if there were to be a professional production of Pippin in the future. JUST SAYING.
Now, will we talk about the tall, leggy, sparkly elephant in the room? I love Rhonda Burchmore, but not in this role. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time of casting, but perhaps more through misdirection than any of her own choices (who ever really knows?), a commedia-esque mask in Act 1 (concealing desperately needed complex emotions) and too-too-too-high heels in Act 2 (making a comedy of each entrance and exit) make it difficult for Burchmore to really sell the nuances of this role. So many moments fall flat and there is no wide-eyed, amazed applause after her part in the Prologue or Last Midnight, which should retain an element of surprise, just as the transformation should, regardless of the number of times we’ve seen the show. Despite Natalie Greer’s work as Rapunzel, even Stay With Me somehow misses the mark. The role, rather than being approached as an extension or manifestation of some aspect of the performer, is treated as a star vehicle and the show is the poorer for it.
A friend commented after the show about Into the Woods being such a great ensemble piece, and with so many on stage there’s not really one who shines…but the Witch should shine and her presence should be felt even after she’s gone. We should be moved beyond words, horrified and full of feeling for the woman who fails so miserably at motherhood. Burchmore has the hardness but not the vulnerability or tenderness that even the wickedest witches among us must feel. Perhaps this Witch would have felt more comfortable on stage – and on those steps – in her Camilla kaftan and flat gold sandals, which were donned for the after party.
Outside of some of the performances, there’s little magic in Harvest Rain’s production, though the “simple and rudimentary” approach to the storytelling is a far cry from explaining it. After the light and breezy feel of Act 1 we’re left with the darker aspects of the story – of life – but not in any real, raw sense. When it comes to Harvest Rain I can never quite put my finger on what’s missing but here’s another example. The Mysterious Man (Ron Kelly) employs an inexplicable nasal tone throughout (and sports a blanket?! I can’t even…) until he reveals who he really is, a moment that becomes a missed opportunity between father and son while they are separated by physical distance, destroying any chance of a tangible connection for us to tap into (No More). Similar proximity between Jack and The Baker separates them at the very moment they need to be drawn together, as Cinderella and Little Red are (No One Is Alone). These are the inconsistencies now commonplace in O’Connor’s productions. For some unknown reason, he continues to miss vital moments in storytelling and relationships, as if the intimacy is too much. And yet, once again, this is an entertaining, enjoyable show, boasting considerable talent and perfectly suitable for the whole family. Who am I to question odd staging decisions?
There’s no denying the awesome effort that has gone into building the company, from its humble church hall beginnings to its current status as a formidable professional presenting brand, incredibly, without government assistance (though not for much longer, I’m sure), but let’s see casting challenges met and the bar continue to be raised. Cheers and here’s to the upcoming (Spectacular Spectacular) Hairspray!
Two midnights gone! And just 4 more shows – today at 2pm & 7:30pm and tomorrow at 1pm & 6:30pm.