Into the Woods

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine

Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester

(2011)

Review by Andrew Edwards

Into the Woods has become one of Stephen Sondheim's most successful and best loved musicals. It was first performed in America in 1986 and was soon honoured with several prestigious Tony Awards for Best Score, Best Book and Best Actress in a musical. There have been many revivals since that time. Now an engaging and enterprising group of students at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester has chosen it to demonstrate their considerable theatrical story telling skill and invention as well as exceptional ensemble singing.

The story is a fusion of some of the most esteemed of all fairy tales. The first half artfully blends the stories of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood along with an original story of a Baker and his Wife and their longing for a family. Of course their struggles are manipulated by a wicked Witch and the not always helpful interventions of a narrator and the character known only as the Mysterious Man.

The Witch has cursed the Baker and his Wife with infertility and, in order to lift the curse, they have to find a white cow, a red cape, yellow hair and a golden slipper. In trying to find these items they come into contact and conflict with most of the other characters who are pursuing their own well known stories. All have to find their adventures in the woods of the title. The first half involves the characters in their respective quests and the unexpected ways they connect evoke much laughter. The songs are very tuneful and in this production beautifully sung in differing combinations of voices.

All the Principals acquit themselves with honour. Emma Hall as Cinderella has perhaps the strongest Soprano on offer here but Lorna James as the feisty Witch and co-director Rebecca Lea as The Baker's Wife were equally impressive singers.

The Baker, played by Thomas Asher, had a sure comic touch to his fine singing and BBC Daily Service singer Rebecca Anderson also shone as Jack's mother.

The staging is a mix of concert performance style with some pantomime. The set is dominated by a large tree with gnarled branches. This serves also as a tower and hill at different moments and its height is very well used in the staging. There is a winding path on the floor which is marked by sheets of music cleverly strewn. The music stands double as trees from time to time as they are decorated with red and green leaves and the lighting complements the action very well, a gobo effect throwing the main area into the mottled light you would get in a wood. RNCM stalwart Philip L Edwards' lighting perfectly complemented the action.

The characters have to pursue their various quests in the woods. "Going into the woods" is one of the best ensemble numbers in the piece and the choreography was exciting. Really good use was made of different levels with some performers alternately standing and crouching and the group moved very well together.

The costumes were like those of a panto and this was in keeping with the broad brush style of the piece. The Baker wore an apron over his clothes. Cinderella wore her rags and then her lovely gold and cream ball gown. The Princes - one for Cinderella and one for Rapunzel - wore cream britches and boots with a pseudo military style jacket. Christopher Jones was comically menacing as the Wolf when he sang how he felt about talking to his lunch.

Harry Meredith and Sam Lea as the two Princes who sing of the agony of not quite getting what you want - their respective women - blended well. There seemed to be an ad lib in the reprise in the 2nd Act when it appeared that Sam Lea became unsure who was his princess which brought the house down.

There were many stand out moments in an evening of superb singing and characterisation. Joey Dexter's first act solo where, as Jack, he sings of climbing the beanstalk to see the Giants in the Sky was full of youthful ambition and was moving. Equally moving were Rebecca Lea's big number "Moments in the Woods" as the Baker's Wife after her 2nd Act dalliance with the Prince and the penultimate song "No One is Alone", which is a touching and powerful quartet. It put this reviewer in mind of an earlier and equally memorable Sondheim tune from Company, " Being Alive".

The piece seems to be saying that we should be careful for what we wish for: if we get it will it satisfy us? All the characters go on a journey and discover new things about themselves and how to function in the world. There are also comments being made about the tension between wanting and needing to achieve things on your own yet also longing for connection with others.

There is also the eternal theme of being a child or childlike and growing up and becoming independent. In the 2nd Act all the characters appear to be happy having got what they wanted by the end of the first half and their tales appear resolved. However it is not long before chaos ensues as the Giant's Wife arrives to exact a terrible revenge for the death of her husband. This is well realised as a mask is projected onto a screen to form the head of a giant and the live percussion is particularly effective at this point. Various characters are killed directly or indirectly as a result of the appearance of the Giant's Wife including the narrator rather alarmingly and the others have to deal with loss and grief.

Did they appreciate what they had and how will they survive in light of the losses? Each one who dies is given a black sash to wear and tactfully withdraws from the action for a while. Although there is a happy ending of sorts we cannot forget the tragedies which have befallen the characters along the way.

These talented performers play various instruments in the course of the show as well as act and sing sometimes alternately. The seemless way they did this was extremely professional. The singing could generally be heard above the pleasing sound the musicians were making although just occasionally one or two singers were slightly overshadowed. This is to quibble about an evening of joyous harmonies from a master composer whose work this company rendered with consummate depth.

A word about some of the props. The cow was cheekily realised by the use of a clothes horse with a plant pot and tactfully employed small bells. A Harp was appropriately shaped with artfully wrapped paper music sheets.

The students were directed by Rebecca Lea and Jonathan Ainscough who also scintillated as the Narrator and the Mysterious Man. The team were ably supervised musically by Michael Betteridge, a specialist in Sondheim musicals. The programme notes describe how at various points in their nine month preparation for this tremendous production they were questioned by those who wondered why they were spending so much time on a project which could only be tangential to the aim of classical instrumental and opera singing excellence.

The evidence of this evening is a tribute to the commitment, talent and brio of the whole company. It is also an telling omen for the future careers of one and all and a very clear answer to those questions.

The production runs until the 19th February in the intimate Studio space at the Royal Northern College in Manchester.