Review: “ Into the Woods” Sondheim/Lapine

The Gasworks Theatre, Albert Park

28 August 2012

The King David School has tonight delivered a triumphant production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s complex and subtle music theatre piece “Into the Woods”.  At “curtain –fall”,  the cast, orchestra, conductors, directors and production  crew were deservedly applauded by a responsive and appreciative (and near capacity) audience.

The performance (directed by Pip Mushin, produced by Brad Felstead and elegantly choreographed by the talented Yakira Abraham) is superbly paced by conductor Adam Yee with Dermott Tutty, Choral Director, providing cast cues. The large group of excellent musicians supports a talented, energetic cast of principals and ensemble. They accurately deliver the sometimes witty, sometimes wise, sometimes farcical, sometimes deadpan (the Steward Ben Wyatt) sometimes bitter, resentful and vengeful and often poignant lines with clear articulation and often perfectly judged comic timing. Vocal casting for characters was most appropriate (pairings such as the superb Cinderella, Sarah Kogan-Lazarus and her mother the ethereally voiced Noa Opat).  Vocal production was truly lovely, faithful to what I believe is the “Sondheim” sound.  Cast movement and dance were deft and attractive (for instance the “It Takes Two” tango duet sung beautifully by the Baker (Itai Franco) and his wife (the excellent Naomi Keren Black). Production value is high and professional with superb lighting effects and excellent, clear sound-staging, demanded by the often rapid speech patterns used. The theatre space is intimate and the cast, who obviously relished the perfomance, maintained fearless eye contact with the audience throughout. Costumes are well constructed and make-up artistry complete the theatrical illusion.

Structured by Lapine from an intersecting series of well known and easy to recognise Brothers Grimm tales, Sondheim has fashioned a delicate and expressive fable around themes of growth and adaptation of the child to the sometimes capricious and cruel nature of the outside world. Bruno Bettelheim ( a survivor of the Holocaust) explains how fables and tales help us understand as well as negotiate these developmental processes. Sondheim takes us deep into our lives of wishful, magical thinking and of  outcomes and consequences of our wish fulfillment ( be careful  what you wish for because you may get it).

From the opening lines of the Narrator (bright faced, cheeky Benjamin Splitter) through the  “dysfunctional” family life of Cinderella and her hapless Father (Daniel Szmerling), vile Step-mother (Nancye Kochen) and dreadful sisters Florinda (Elissa Cohen/Tamara Reichmann) and Lucinda (Jessica Eden/Tara Finkelstein)   to the upbeat “Ever After” ensemble finale of the first act, everyone seems to get what they want. But  the darker second act explores the sometimes unhappy consequences of this “happily ever after” scenario. The “survivors” evolve into their adultness as those things, some taken for granted, some fantasized over are taken willy-nilly from them by an implacable fate ( manifested as the vengeful Giantess from another plane, visiting havoc on our so-far complacent characters, magnificently voiced from the conductors podium by the statuesque Sarah Sadique).

Lovely touches abound in this production, from the touching relationship between Jack and his cow-on-wheels ( a reminder of  “War Horse”), the dramatic lighting effects accompanying Jack’s announcement of the world of Giants to be accessed via the magic beanstalk, the wide-eyed innocence of Little Red Riding Hood (the very cute, very capable Michaela Cohen) exchanging her child’s red cloak and hood for a fur bolero made from the Wolf killed by her Grandmother ( strong acting from Mikaela Webb),  the delight of Jack the man-boy (played with great assurance by the seasoned Sara Reed) in the stolen “chook”-on-wheels which lays the golden eggs, the swagman-like Mysterious Man (Adam Weitzer) who appears enigmatically at strategic moments in the life of his son the Baker (unerringly portrayed by Itai Franco together singing “No More” one of the most touching moments of the performance, that inevitable  rapprochement between adult sons and their aging fathers as sons grow to understand, forgive and assume their imperfect role in life) , the doorless tower created from Gladwrap for Rapunzel (the very “blond” Danielle Carey –boy can she scream as well as sing)  where she is trapped by her overprotective Witch-mother (a convincing Judy Cyngler), the always questing Prince-brothers ( “ I was raised to be Charming, not sincere!”) evoking male adolescent stirrings in  “Agony” (Jarred Sibel who possesses a lovely tenor voice and doubles as a keyboard musician/repetiteur with  John Reed whose singing is very true to the Sondheim sound style also role doubling as the lothario Wolf, with a six-pack and penchant for under-age women and their mothers), the equipoise second act moment of stillness, forgiveness and solace sung by the surviving parent figures the Baker and Cinderella to the “children” Jack and Red Ridinghood, the unexpected and  shocking slaying of Jack’s loving mother (played with intensity by Simone Chait)…… the list goes on.

The whole company ( including the wood sprite chorus and the resurrected dead) returns for the Finale “Children will Listen”….”I Wish”, a bright splendid ending to this unflaggingly engaging and energetic production. Congratulations to all involved.

Dr David Bernshaw

Director of Music – Melbourne Hebrew Congregation