Some musicals feel eternally young, never appearing to date, despite their age. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s fairytale-inspired musical ‘Into the Woods’ is a testament to this fact, packed to the brim with quick-witted one-liners and ageless tomfoolery.
‘Savoyards @ the Star’, a fledgling program devised to nurture the next generation of creative teams, is exactly what Brisbane needs right now. Beginning with last year’s inaugural ‘I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change’, by using smaller spaces, casts and technical requirements, it affords bright-eyed and enthusiastic creatives a platform to allow their work to be workshopped, refined and realised, benefitting both the immediate Savoyards family and other companies around South East Queensland.
Was ‘Into the Woods’ a perfectly realised show? No. But considering a large amount of the creative team were making their debuts, it packed a punch in all the right places with heart and enthusiasm.
On the back of the relatively recent 2015 film, it could have been very easy to carbon copy the look and feel of the Disney production, especially with the newfound wider audience appreciation. This being said, director Vanessa Wainwright, a Savoyards performing-stalwart consciously appeared to take a very different path for her tale, which was stylised and fully-committed from start to finish.
‘Into the Woods’ – a show not particularly renowned for its comedy appeared to be given an almost pantomime-like treatment, with multiple moments of conscious overacting and a slap-stick style physicality that at times felt to undermine the overly dramatic and serious nature of the source material. For the most part, the audience appeared to thoroughly enjoy this take on a Sondheim classic, but purists may leave with mixed feelings.
The ambiguous locations of fairytales mean that inconsistent accents are not outside the realm of possibility. However, from RP British to the most Okka of Australian, there was an air of confusion as to not only the location of the setting but with some characters drifting between accents, some of the magic created was lost.
Sitting with a grin from ear to ear for her first preview in the director’s seat, it was very clear that her cast and crew held the utmost respect for this up-and-coming director. Her cast appeared to be fully supportive of her vision for the show and their performances on stage were a testament to her guidance and support.
You only have to ask any audition accompanist what composers they fear and they’ll tell you two: Jason Robert-Brown and Stephen Sondheim. Striking fear in even the most seasoned of Musical Directors, let alone an MD that is beginning his journey into the world of musical theatre, Sondheim’s score for ‘Into the Woods’ is devilishly complex and full of subtly nuanced phrases and gestures.
Musical Director Matthew Semple did a commendable job, sculpting a wonderful vocal soundscape. With beautiful vocals and consistently strong harmonies throughout, the musical highlights of the show were found at the end of each act, where the stage was full and the vocals were rich and vibrant. Semple’s sixteen-piece orchestra, for the most part, created a wonderfully rich foundation, it was unfortunate that the sound levels between the orchestra and the vocals were so unbalanced, regularly missing dialogue and solo lines due to overzealous underscoring.
Venues without a pit can be difficult to manage, even with the easiest of Jukebox Pop musicals, let alone Sondheim. With the placement of the orchestra and musical director outside of the auditorium, and with the actors reliant upon cameras and mounted monitors it was impressive that for such a complex show full of vamps, safeties, and difficult upbeats, everyone remained in sync throughout the show. This testament to the hard work both the Musical Director put in with his cast and orchestra, and the tech team put in with their electronics is a good sign of things to come, especially if Savoyards continue to mount shows inside the Star theatre.
‘Into the Woods’ is the very definition of an ensemble led show, with each character’s arc weaving its own path to create the complex production we all know and appreciate.
Leading the stellar cast was Andrew Dark and Astin Hammermeister, portraying the barren Baker and his wife. With naturally wonderful chemistry and synchronous comic timing, both Dark and Hammermeister brought a humanistic quality to their characters from the offset, imploring the audience to empathise with their plight to ‘get the curse reversed’. Continually feeling as though they were going to finish each other’s sentences, it was their duet ‘It Takes Two’ that provided a light-hearted highlight, showcasing their natural portrayal of husband and wife.
As the narrator and mysterious man, Warryn James brought his all to the character. His quirky charm and beautiful delivery brought smiles to the appreciative audience, his wonderful sense of comic timing a key indicator of his extensive experience. James’ duet ‘No More’ with the Baker was emotive and touching, creating a wonderful bond between the two actors on stage.
As the stridently-forward and ever-so-precocious Little Red Riding Hood, Paige McKay brought to the table a character chocked-full of attitude. With vocals full of vigour and vitality, her portrayal was fresh and fun, with McKay bringing maturity to her character’s arc that was believable and exciting from start to finish.
Tavis Bancroft’s Jack was likeable and personable. His rendition of ‘Giants in the Sky’ was clean and well-performed, full of positivity and excitement. His interactions with his best friend, Milky White (constructed and beautifully performed by the talented Jessica Ferguson), were endearing and wholesome and added another layer to his likeability.
As dueling princes, Conor Ensor and Tony Ahchay were the perfect amounts of over-the-top Disney Prince and believable leading men. ‘Agony’, a particular highlight of Act 1, allowed both longing-Lotharios to showcase their vocal prowess, continually upstaging each other. Ensor’s crystalline vocals were a particular stand out, especially in Act Two’s more seductive requirements. His interaction with Cinderella during their relationship breakdown brought a much-needed air of seriousness to the show, offsetting the show’s generally comic nature.
The role of the Witch comes with a certain amount of expectation. Originated in 1987 by Bernadette Peters, this role has been subsequently performed by other vocal powerhouses including Vanessa Williams, Donna Murphy and Patina Miller to name just three.
Although Jacqui Cuny’s Witch was comparatively understated it was hard to tell whether or not it was simply that her mic wasn’t used to its full potential (as it was consistently at a lower volume than everyone else), or she’d decided to create a more introspective persona for her witch. Already an over-the-top character, Cuny’s characterization tied in with the director’s Old-English music hall vision, creating an almost pantomime villain that we all loved to hate, but secretly want to be.
David McLaughlin’s wolf was a delight from the outset. His wolf persona may have had a short shelf-life (expiring early in Act 1), but it packed one hell of a punch. With the perfect mix of smooth vocals and impeccable comic timing, McLaughlin’s wolf may have been tamer and more well-behaved than other versions, but the audience lapped him up and couldn’t get enough.
Saving the best until last, it was Lara Boyle’s breathtaking embodiment of Cinderella that stole the show. Both opening and closing the production, Boyle was the epitome of class in both her acting and vocal choices, carving a character that was fully realised from beginning to end. Her performance of ‘No One Is Alone’ alongside Baker Andrew Dark was not only emotionally charged and full of style, but perfectly balanced and a performance from the most top of drawers.
Costume design by Kristan Ford was simple and mostly effective. His princes were regal, Cinderella’s ball gown was a delight in gold and there were some beautiful details in the Baker and his Wife’s costuming. A particular delight to the observant few was the inclusion of flour sack packaging patches on the garments. This being said, Ford’s costuming felt safe. There was no on-stage transformation of the Witch, Cinderella was without a wedding dress and the stepsisters’ costumes were understated and lacked cohesion. In such a fairytale setting full of magic and wonder, it would have been nice to see a little more magic brought to the stage.
This sense of safety carried over to Charlotte Keen’s set design, which consisted of three large trees engulfing the entire stage, hiding a multitude of levels that were used effectively throughout the performance. With all trees painted a similar shade of brown and very little other colour to be found on stage, it felt as though there was a missed opportunity to create depth and an eerie sense of foreboding. It would have been lovely to see a larger colour palette utilised to give the story a greater sense of dimension.
Overall, the lighting design by Jason Gardner was effective and the actors always seemed to find their light. However, the lack of sinisterness was not helped by the stark white cyc at the rear of the stage, which seemed regularly underutilised. This being said, there were fleetingly beautiful moments of backlit silhouettes that could have been explored further creating an even more wonderful sense of magic and mystery.
Full of quick-witted Sondheim rhymes, memorable songs, and an interesting, engaging story, ‘Into the Woods’ has a cult classic standing for a reason. The ‘Savoyards @ the Star’ production may have had its flaws, and its focus on the pantomime may not be for everyone, but overall the cast and crew should be proud of their accomplishments and we encourage you to pursue your own happily ever after.
‘Into the Woods’ presented by Savoyards @ The Star runs until Saturday 14th March. Tickets available from https://www.savoyards.com.au.
This article was edited by Shane Webb.