In a dramatic departure from last year’s Death of a Salesman, this semester Caelan Mitchell-Bennett has teamed up with Just So to bring us Sondheim’s classic fairy-tale musical, Into the Woods. It’s a challenging show to take on, made up of interweaving plotlines (some more relevant than others) and two very disparate halves. It’s a credit to Mitchell-Bennett’s talent and versatility, and that of his team, that they pulled off such a greatly enjoyable performance.
The entire production was so excellently cast that it is difficult to pick out stand-out performances. Daniel Jonusas and Millie Postle as the Baker and his wife demonstrated great chemistry, through bickering and the charming duet “It Takes Two” to their heartbreaking reunion in the finale (I’d be lying if I said I didn’t shed a few tears at this moment). Stephanie Herron as Cinderella captured the journey from naïve girl to young woman aware of the world’s complexities, all with a beautiful soprano voice. While I could find Rachel Munroe’s Witch a little repetitive in her delivery at times, her incredibly powerful voice was more than up to the varied challenges of this difficult role. Hanna Lawson provided an excellent comic turn as the skipping, unnervingly violent, pig-tailed Little Red Riding Hood, swapping her own accent for an appropriate high-pitched, nasal American. Coggin Galbreath raised huge laughs as both the Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince, perfectly achieving “charming, not sincere” – and his duet with Miles Hurley as Rapunzel’s Prince was, as it should be in any production, a hilarious highlight. The ensemble pieces were also excellent, tightly choreographed, energetic and performed with absolute commitment.
The set, while not transforming the StAge into a woodland grove quite as thoroughly as I had hoped, was nevertheless beautiful, and the choice to perform in thrust with the band above on the stage proved very effective. Noemie Jouas’ beautiful costumes (many made from scratch) created the perfect fairytale look, while still being modern enough to fit with the lightly satirical take of the show. Lighting, a challenge for such staging, was very atmospheric – as Jess U-J told me afterwards, having learned from experience, the technicians were able to employ spots and more complicated effects than previously by having one perched on top of the seating rack where they can actually see the performance area. The technical problems came more with sound, where there were a few noticeable slip-ups. At some points actors were difficult to hear over the band, and the odd squeal of mic feedback unfortunately distracted from some songs. The first line of the Giant during both of her appearances was not mic-ed, causing a strange dissonance when a quiet human voice from behind the curtain suddenly turned into a booming one with a reverb effect from the speakers. Conversely, at a couple of moments when mics should have been switched off, we suddenly got snippets of a backstage conversation broadcast in the middle of some poor actor’s solo. I’m sure these are just teething problems, born of the inevitable time constraints for tech runs in St Andrews, which hopefully will be resolved for the next two performances. None significantly detracted from my enjoyment, but did impact the slickness of the production.
This is the third time (excluding the Disney film version) that I’ve seen Into the Woods, and there is still so much in here that I always forget. When I say this is a challenging show, this is what I mean. There is so much great stuff in there, but it’s also rather flabby and bitty, and could really have done with someone taking a pen to the original script and saying “Stephen, cut this, and this, and is there really no way to simplify this?” The Mysterious Man (that’s his actual name in the script) always strikes me as a particularly dissonant part of what’s already a show trying to balance a lot of different storylines. Matthew Patton was hilarious in this role, which I think the team dealt with in the only way one reasonably can – by playing up the ridiculousness of the part, scuttling mysteriously off stage after every appearance. There’s Rapunzel bearing twins and then immediately being killed by a giant, which I’ve always found both somewhat cruel and just confusing. The interweaving stories leave characters constantly entering and exiting, or standing around onstage for extended periods while not actually doing anything. Unfortunately (and again, this may well just be first night teething problems) several of these entrances seemed to be late, and there were strange gaps where actors seemed to be waiting for something to happen. It’s an almost inevitable problem in such a loosely structured show, and just a shame that they didn’t quite have the time in the space to iron out these kinks.
What Into the Woods seems to be attempting is to point out that the happy ending is never actually the end of the story, forcing us to think about the multitudinous sins so often papered over by the catch-all “happily ever after”. It’s an interesting concept, and despite resulting in that dissonance between the first and second half, leads to such highlights as the seduction of the Baker’s Wife by the Prince and the heartbreaking “No One is Alone”, a reflection on the insufficiency of black and white morality. This is certainly a musical with its flaws, which this production wasn’t quite able to smooth over. Despite this, the excellent music, incredibly talented cast, and beautiful staging made it a deeply enjoyable production that I would happily sit through all over again.