Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods at Open Air Theatre

Into the Woods
A musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine

The Narrator – Ethan Beer
Cinderella – Helen Dallimore
Jack – Ben Stott
Baker – Mark Hadfield
Baker’s Wife – Jenna Russell
Cinderella’s Stepmother – Gaye Brown
Florinda – Amy Ellen Richardson
Lucinda – Amy Griffiths
Jack’s Mother – Marilyn Cutts
Little Red Ridinghood – Beverly Rudd
Witch – Hannah Waddingham
Cinderella’s Mother – Gemma Wardle
Mysterious Man – Billy Boyle
Wolf/ Cinderella’s Prince – Michael Xavier
Grandmother – Valda Aviks
Rapunzel – Alice Fearn
Rapunzel’s Prince – Simon Thomas
Steward – Mark Goldthorp
Snow White/ Harp – Sophie Caron
Woodsman – Mark Antolin

With Judi Dench as the voice of the Giant

The Band: Tom Kelly – Keyboards & Assistant Musical Director; Julia Singleton – Viola & Violin; Eliza Marshall – Flute, Piccolo & Alto Flute; Alice Gledhill – Clarinet & Bass Clarinet; Bill Brewer – French horn; Ian Lynch – Trumpet & Flugelhorn; Mike Parkin – Percussion; Ed Morris – Double Bass; Gareth Valentine – Musical Supervisor/Musical Director & Keyboards

Timothy Sheader – Director
Liam Steel – Co-director and Movement Director
Soutra Gilmour – Designer
Jon Clark – Lighting Designer
Mike Walker – Sound Designer

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 17 August, 2010
Venue: Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, London NW1

The eightieth-birthday year of Stephen Sondheim continues in London with an al fresco production of “Into the Woods”, in which composer-lyricist Sondheim and writer James Lapine take familiar characters from traditional fairy-tales and, using the pantomime genre as a framing device, transform four stories into one. Inspired by Bruno Bettelheim’s book “The Uses of Enchantment”, the piece covers many serious themes such as parent/child relationships, growing up, accepting responsibility, morality and the fulfilment of wishes.

However, it is also, like pantomime, very entertaining as well as moving and moralistic. The stories of “Little Red Riding Hood”, “Cinderella”, “Rapunzel” and “Jack and the Beanstalk” all meld together into one hilarious albeit convoluted plot, and for the most part Sondheim and Lapine make it work like magic. What adds to the magic in this production is the setting itself. The outdoor sylvan backdrop of Regent’s Park has its own particular attraction and it somehow makes the characters cavorting about more credible because there they are really going into the woods.

The original London production was at the Phoenix Theatre in 1990 and the first revival came to the tiny Donmar Warehouse. Since then it has made regular reappearances on the London fringe, the last of which was at the small pub venue, the Landor Theatre in Clapham. At the other end of the scale, even the Royal Opera House has staged a production, so it’s a show that can work in large or small venues, indoors or out. For Regent’s Park, director Timothy Sheader has put his own mark on it mainly by making the Narrator a small child who has rowed with his parents and is sitting down sulking while he conjures up the stories from his mind.

The four stories are interwoven with another tale about a baker and his wife, a childless couple who have had a spell cast on them by a neighbouring witch because the Baker’s parents once stole her magic beans. In order to have a child they must go into the woods and find a red cloak, a milk-white cow, hair as yellow as corn and a golden slipper. These are the props that allow them their encounters with Red Riding Hood, Jack, Rapunzel and Cinders.

All the characters set out on a journey on which anything can happen that is exciting, frightening, unusual or magical. They each have their own agenda: Cinderella wants to go to the King’s festival, Red Riding Hood is to deliver food to her grandmother, Jack is off to sell his pet cow, and Rapunzel is singing and combing her hair, awaiting her release from captivity.

The first half of the show is the quest for their objectives and the often-comic incidents that occur during the journey into the woods. Then, after the interval, the mood changes, when everything goes wrong for the protagonists and the show moves over to an even darker side when it becomes a “timely moral allegory for adults”. Happy ending? Well

Much of the pleasure in the show comes not only from Lapine’s skilful manipulation of the assorted characters but also from Sondheim’s sublime music and his felicitous lyrics which go from high comedy to unendurable sadness. ‘Hello, Little Girl’ has the Wolf introducing himself to Red Riding Hood as a smooth operator, followed by Jack bidding a fond farewell to his favourite cow in ‘I Guess This Is Goodbye’. ‘I Know Things Now’ sees Red Riding Hood philosophising on her latest experiences in the woods, while ‘Agony’ is a duet by Cinderella’s Prince and Rapunzel’s Prince on their inability to locate their true loves. However, nothing can beat the emotional impact of such songs as ‘No One Is Alone’ and ‘Children Will Listen’ which provide the two main lessons in the piece.

The company is a joy, from Beverly Rudd’s well-fed Red Riding Hood who manages to consume most of her granny’s comestibles and Helen Dallimore’s sparky and Sloaney Cinderella, to Alice Fearn’s angry, long-haired Rapunzel and Sophie Caton’s singing harp who turns out to be more harpy than harp. Michael Xavier doubles up brilliantly as both the Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince, the latter an absolute scream when accompanied by Simon Thomas as Rapunzel’s Prince. Ben Stott as Jack and Marilyn Cutts as his Mother make a fine pair of Scousers, while Mark Hadfield and Jenna Russell as the Baker and his Wife are a marvellously comic double-act. Good work too comes from Gaye Brown as Cinderella’s Stepmother and Amy Ellen Richardson and Amy Griffiths as Cinders’s cosmetically challenged Sisters. Best of all, though, is Hannah Waddingham’s Witch – crawling around on sticks like Anthony Sher’s bottled spider Richard III, she is a mixture of both menace and hilarity. The only cavil I have is that the small boy doesn’t really tell the story adequately enough.

Sadly the weather broke just after the beginning of Act Two and rain stopped play, the only drawback about the Open Air Theatre. However, on the strength of the first half alone, accompanied by Gareth Valentine’s excellent band hidden in another part of the forest, this production is one of the most enjoyable that Sondheim & Lapine’s masterpiece has ever been given and is certainly worth a detour to Regent’s Park.

  • Into the Woods continues at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park until Saturday 11 September
  • Monday to Saturday at 8 p.m., matinees Thursday & Saturday at 2.30 p.m.
  • Tickets: 0844 826 4242

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