Retro Review: In To The Woods by Sondheim and Lapine (2009)

Once upon a time, in a faraway kingdom, there was a convoluted interweaving of classic Brothers Grimm fairytales into a musical. This is of course Sondheim and Lapine’s Into the Woods, which remains widely performed and celebrated.

The gist of this fantastical tale is that, “Happily Ever After”’ ends only the first act. It seems that every one is “so happy”. Cinderella and Rapunzel get princes; the witch her beauty; Jack money and his cow back; Little Red Riding Hood a wolf skin cloak; Granny a renewal of life and the new characters of baker and his wife resolve the curse that has left them childless and are now expecting. Yet beyond that lasting happiness there is the continuing reality of each character’s everyday lives. The most destructive extension is that of the Giant’s wife who is seeking revenge for the murder of her husband. As the others scramble to evade her footsteps, in true moralistic fairytale tradition we are taught that all actions have consequences. Fortunately this message is received through a most enjoyable show!

Indeed the program synopsis ends with the warning “[be] careful of the legacy we leave, the tales we teach, and an awareness that no matter what battles we fight or whose side we’re on, all actions have consequences.” This is certainly true; however the writer and composer of Into the Woods are far too clever to browbeat the audience, the number of laughs outweighing the rueful nods.

Director, Scott Dunsdon’s production of Into the Woods demonstrated both the creative diversity and artistic vision of The University of Melbourne Musical Theatre Association (UMMTA). Starting with the wonderful show itself he has presided over a magical piece of theatre.

Set designer Robert Smith (MUSC Macbeth 2008) provided instant visual impact with his inspired set design. His aesthetic not only grounded the piece in a minimalist fairytale world but coupled with Zach Oates evocative lighting, gave an eerie, yet familiar feel to the woods. The layered panels of painted canvas that formed the woods were silhouetted not only with trees and branches but also a typewriter script that alluded to the literary origins of the characters. Being able to make out the live orchestra through the panels was also a very refreshing concept that complemented both the sound and style of the piece.

Performing within the stylised space was an exceptionally talented cast. This was apparent not only in the voices of the ensemble but also in the dedication demonstrated in the portrayal of their characters. In such a performance, singling out particular cast members (apart from Milky White the cow!) is very difficult. In a musical, such contributions from all the cast are ideal and it reinforced the high production values of this show.

Once upon a Wednesday evening a girl in a grey coat wandered into the theatre. She spent a couple of hours discovering the wonders of the woods, departed with music wafting through her head and a new appreciation of the importance of fairytale and the mirror it can hold up against our contemporary culture. “I Wish.”

Semester One 2009, review for Union House Theatre