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A fairy tale for grown-ups: Into the Woods skips the happy ending

A fairy tale for grown-ups: Into the Woods skips the happy ending
Photos by Jesse Kramer

Award-winning Stephen Sondheim show Into the Woods tells the tale of a barren baker and his wife, with Kate Normington as an excellent witch and dependable narration from Michael Richard.

What hope is left for humanity when even a fairy tale doesn’t have a happy ending? When you get what you wish for, then realise it doesn’t fill the yearning gap inside you anyway.

That facet of life is reflected in Stephen Sondheim’s award-winning show Into the Woods, directed by Steven Stead for KickstArt theatre productions. It looks like a pantomime, sounds like a musical and plays out like a tragicomedy. Characters die and Prince Charming cheats on his wife with a random stranger. Its recurring themes: be careful what you wish for, and the wise message that good and bad reside in everyone, so life isn’t a clear-cut path of rights and wrongs.

What I’d wished for is slightly more clarity in the vocals, because the deep, dark Sondheim lyrics really need to be heard to carry the story. But sometimes the characters are singing at such a clip that the complex lyrics are lost, or overwhelmed by the music. When the characters zip on and off dishing out nuggets of wisdom in the form of mottos that have shaped some people’s lives, several were lost in the delivery.

Image Jesse Kramer.

The plot is an inventive mash-up of popular fairy tales, with the characters brought together as the barren baker and his wife set out to collect various items from the others to break a curse that leaves them childless.

The first thing you notice is the wonderful staging by Greg King, with different sets for the characters giving way to a menacing forest with tangled roots and a revolving centre. The costumes by Neil Harris are also lavish, giving it that panto feel with ballgowns and Cinderella rags, and dashing leather and velvet affairs for the princes.

The large cast produces several favourites, with Kate Normington excellent as the witch, complete with a scary mask, a crooked back, and a warped sense of what makes a good mother that’s even more disturbing than her appearance.

Equally dependable is Michael Richard as the narrator, with his reassuring boom of a voice guiding us into the story, then reappearing as the mysterious man with some belated lessons to impart about fatherhood.

Image Jesse Kramer.

The baker and his wife (Earl Gregory and Jessica Sole) are other highlights, with expressions and movements that nicely emphasise the words.

With Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics for West Side Story and Sweeney Todd, it’s inevitable that a fairy tale will have a bitter pill inside the sugar coating. Here it comes in two distinct parts, with the dreams-come-true first half feeling like a complete story in itself. What more can happen now, you wonder, as the interval arrives. Plenty, actually, unravelling all the happiness and requiring the characters to stand together to fend off a common foe. Which they don’t entirely manage, being human as well as fictional.

Both the book by James Lapine and Sondheim’s music and lyrics come in a variety of emotional shades, but with a running time of about three hours, including the interval, it felt overly long.

Image Jesse Kramer.

Nothing stood out as superfluous, yet my attention started to wane as the scenes unfolded without quite enough spark of magic to lure me back into the woods with them. DM

Into The Woods runs at Montecasino Theatre until April 14. Tickets from the Box Office on 011 511 1818 or Computicket.


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