Into The Woods just felt like the right choice to watch the other night after the amazing Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration that I saw on Sunday night. (TAG wrote it up for my blog so click here if you’d like to read what he said and watch some of the great videos.) Sondheim’s fairytale adventure is a joyful, connected, clever piece of storytelling, taking several well-known children’s bedtime stories and weaving them skillful together into a musical about wishing and wanting, and what happens when you actually get what you wish for. All played out in one place, the woods and the darkness of a child’s fear. It’s all done so beautifully well in this 2010 Regent’s Park Theatre production available for streaming on these self-isolating nights. Creative, magical, and haunting, it’s a bit of escapism that fits perfectly right into our overwhelmingly dangerous time that we are living through. Trouble lurks outside, in the air, like the idea of a giant falling from the skies. It’s multi-layered approach, executed most excellently and structured in metaphorical levels that resembles a young lad’s treehouse, one that is alive and growing with white wood nymphs and fantastical characters emerging out from under the trees. There was a similarly designed production in the Delacorte Theater in Central Park in 2012 that I saw and loved, and as it turns out , it was a transfer with the same director and the same schematic theme, but with an American cast and a new set of designers. Like that revival, directed with an eyes-wide-open childlike-view by Timothy Sheader, the artistic director of the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, this production finds innocence in the entangled darkness, and clarity in the nostalgic magical moments of fear and frustration. It also doesn’t hurt that this production is full of wildly wonderful performances and equally interesting vantage points not normally seen or heard within this classic musical tale.
Throwing out the first curveball of the evening, Sheader delivers quite the unique setup, one that feels completely unforced and natural. In doing so, he has given us a structure that elevates the reasonings with very real-world consequences and a modern morality stuffed inside. A young schoolboy, dressed in uniform, has run away into the woods to escape his parents’ quarreling. With a sleeping bag in his arms and a determined panic in his step, he squats down in the woods and escapes into his fairytale storytelling to ease his troubled heart and soul. He latches on to designer Soutra Gilmour’s wooden treehouse four-tiered set as if his emotional stability depended on it. His imaginary characters creep out of the darkness and at his request, launch themselves into their respective stories. The young boy, dynamically played by Eddie Manning, not only narrates but participates with his escapist creations, helping out and playing mischief on them throughout until sadly, he gets thrown into the abyss by his own fascinating imagination. It’s a glorious creation and a perfect match up by Sheader, taking all the obvious ingredients of an Open Air Theatre and the park that surrounds it, and details the production into an organic creation telling these slightly scary morality tales from a unsettled child’s eye vantage.
Under the excellent musical direction of Gareth Valentine, the fine cast illuminates the tales within. They are all outstanding, particularly – and it’s not surprising as they are the best parts of Into The Woods – Hannah Waddingham (West End’s Spamalot) as the witchiest of witches, who embraces the distortions and the transformation with glee. Her deformed initial appearance radiates menace and humor, but it is in her slick black-haired page-boy vamp role where Waddingham finds her spotlight, radiating distress and sensual need neatly within one delicious body. The powerless mother, desperate for attachment, finds a glorious edge to her ‘Stay With Me’ and ‘Children Will Listen’, which are both equally emotional and outstanding. It’s a powerfully exciting performance and is as playful as the part demands.
Another standout characterization is the always phenomenal Jenna Russell (West End/Broadway’s Sunday in the Park…), who gives us a Baker’s Wife who is rich in emotional depth, filled with sardonic charm, and carrying a complex desperation to bear a child with her Baker, played strongly by Mark Hadfield. Russell has always delivered, particularly when it comes to Sondheim, but here in the woods, she finds a way to radiate an authentic fractious relationship from within where a couple can bicker, stray, and fight, and still be ok. This art, something she tries to explain to the wonderfully eclectic Beverley Rudd (Queen’s Theatre’s Soho Cinders) as the scene-stealing greedy Red Riding Hood, finds a simple truth in the dynamic and only secures their parenting relationship as more meaningful than first realized. Under that red-caped, we find a young female force not to be played with, especially when her sexual energy is unleashed in her lusty attraction to the devilishly sexy child-molesting wolf, played seductively by Michael Xavier (Broadway’s Prince of Broadway). It’s a finely tuned swinging scene that radiates everything you could hope for without giving too much away. That could also be said of Xavier, when he dons an exquisitely designed tight-legged frock and wild Russell Brand hairpiece to play the Prince who captivatingly seduces the Baker’s Wife in ‘Any Moment’ and chases Cinderella deep Into The Woods. He says it’s for love, but it’s really for something quite different.
An equally splendid moment is delivered by Helen Dallimore (Glinda in West End’s Wicked) who unwraps the confused dynamics of the head-phone wearing Cinderella with her intricate and intense phrasing of ‘On the Steps of the Palace’. It also slyly, brings in a little Jack, beautifully portrayed by Ben Stott (Royal Exchange Theatre’s Hamlet) and a touch of Red mixed into the ending, emphasizing some thoughtful confusion in their own particular wish-fulfilling fantasies. Stott’s Jack grows up before our eyes, although his attachment dynamics are forever steeped in complex oddity, particularly when he proclaims excitedly that he now has two best friends, a cow and a harp. It’s priceless and funny in its authentic honesty, yet somewhat heart-breaking because of its utter sincerity. How did the young lost-boy turn out the way he did, or is this a manufactured ideal growing out of the young boy’s narrative that has yet to understand sexuality or love? The role of Jack’s Mother, hilariously portrayed by the excellent Marilyn Cutts (West End’s Funny Girl) wearing a carpenter’s tool belt and rollers in her hair delivers the perfect counterpoint to Jack, emphasizing a unique character’s standpoint while embracing a costuming take that adds modern dream-like layers that lives up to the heightened abstractions that surrounds it.
Xavier and the wonderful Simon Thomas (The Other Palace’s The Wild Party) make quite the pair of pompous self-absorbed Prince Charmings. Dressed and bounding through the woods similarly, they are desirous of ‘love’ only if it is a challenge and just a tad bit out of reach. ‘Agony‘ is their drug of choice, as they were “raised to be charming, not sincere“. Thomas’ Prince Charming and the long-haired sheltered Rapunzel, beautifully portrayed by Alice Fearn (West End’s Come From Away), find a fresh turn around the wooden tiered woods with an old fashioned baby carriage and a whole lot of attachment disfunction. It’s clever and a strong use of that smaller scenario that always feels a bit underwhelming, although it’s one of the only tales within this two-act musical that feels psychologically more compelling in the second act than the first.
As Into The Woods reacts to the culminating Giant dilemma set before them, wonderfully voiced by Judy Dench, the crashing of everyone’s wish, including the escapist fantasy of the young boy who brought all of this to life, gets amazingly out of hand and scary. Death, loss, and grief are grappled with, much in the same way the young boy has to deal with the discomfort and fear of hearing his parent’s bitter fighting. The musical, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Lapine, find centeredness within the scariness of the park after dark and the indicate plots of both the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault fairy tales. Even the three little pigs scamper about in fear. The direction within explores the true-life consequences of the characters’ wishes and dreams, including the terrified separation fears of the run-away boy narrating. All ladders, stairs and elevated walkways, the layers of sexual and moralistic familial conflict unfold with a subtle surprising care in the exposed setting and under the threat of a dead giant’s familial vengeance. Everyone is someone’s child, they tell us, and revenge can bounce along hurting more and more for eternity if we let it. Sheader finds a perfect structure to remind us that fairytales are often childhood fears played out to understand and resolve, much like dreams and nightmares. When the father, played by the same actor as the nervous Baker, finds his run-away son curled up in a sleeping bag in the woods, it all makes sense. The scaredness that lives inside that boy who has nightmares about the shattering of his family evaporate inside Into The Woods and the night air. They find comfort in each other’s arms, and the frightened dad, who is probably thinking he’s a terrible father, is just so grateful to find his lost son and feels, once again, complete and whole. A happy ending of a kind, one that lives solidly in the real world and in our tearfilled eyes. It’s no surprise this beautifully crafted production found its way to Central Park a few years after in played in Regent’s Park, and I was glad to be there to welcome it. Now on digitaltheatre.com and back then at the Delacorte in Central Park, New York City.
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