Ever since the death of Stephen Sondheim in November 2021 there has been a rush on both the professional and amateur stage to produce his works, with every performer and creative wishing to pay posthumous tribute to the most influential voice in musical theatre during the latter half of the last century. As a fully paid up ‘Sondaphile’, I’ve therefore been delighted to witness this outpouring of love for the great man with productions of Company and Sweeney Todd and ‘A Little Night Music’ standing next to his lesser known works (Passion, Assassins and the forthcoming Pacific Overtures) in showcasing his lyrical genius. Tonight we are firmly at the popular end of the spectrum with a production of ‘Into The Woods’ the 1987 collaboration with James Lapine, as Altrincham Garrick finish their season strongly with another production of the highest quality.
For those that are unaware, ‘Into The Woods’ takes the fairytale stories of Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack & the Beanstalk and mixes them together with the story of childless Baker and his wife, sprinkles with fantasy and produces an unforgettable fable exploring themes of loss, parenthood and facing responsibility. It is a big show in every sense of the word, running at nearly three hours this evening including interval, with a cast of twenty one (including a very special guest Julie Hesmondhalgh as The Giant) and an eleven piece orchestra secreted in the pit.
It is clear that Artistic Director Joseph Meighan and the creative team have expended enormous effort to get the technical aspects of this show to a professional standard with the lighting design (James Merrington) evoking spooky moonlight perfectly and allows seamless scene changes, whilst the built set (Trevor McKie) gives depth and height to the production and enabled interesting choices to be made when staging the musical numbers. My only criticism from a technical perspective is that the orchestra pit at the Garrick is centre stage which constricted the choreography when all the actors were onstage, especially during the prologue and finale. Meighan also littered the set with Sondheim references throughout the evening, everything from a Seurat painting to a Barber’s chair were present, adding to the joyous geek factor of the production for this reviewer.
There was clarity and consistency in the interpretation of the book by James Lapine with Meighan opting for a defiantly British interpretation of the story. Jack (John Vernon) and his mother (Steph Niland) were a poor Scouse family with only a dry cow (hilarious cameo from Megan Preece on a bicycle) for company; Cinderella (Natalie Hayes) was a posh girl at the mercy of her wicked stepmother (Sarah Kirk) and ugly sisters (Elidh Pollard & Georgina Brame) who channelled East End cockney; Little Red (Emily Leeland) was a knife wielding Mancunian juvenile delinquent and The Witch (Dawn Flint) displayed a convincing Irish brogue.
This decision led to a relaxed and naturalistic feel to the production throughout with the casting being exceptionally strong, the full age range of the characters and the family dynamics within the differing stories realistically portrayed by a cast that spanned the generations. It worked best demonstrating the love/hate relationship of Cinderella’s Prince and his brotherly rival (Connor J Ryan and Myles Ryan) as they hilariously tried to outdo each other during ‘Agony’ and also brought out the darker and seamier side of ‘Hello Little Girl’ when performed by The Wolf (Jon Gardner). Strongest performances came from the junior leads with Leeland as Little Red demonstrated strong vocals and developed a sparring humour with John Vernon as Jack, whilst Natalie Hayes navigated the tongue twisting Sondheim lyrics beautifully, giving expression and understanding during ‘Steps of the Palace’. As well as the aforementioned Ryan brothers, I would also highlight Flint as The Witch, an unsympathetic character following her transformation but rendering ‘Last Midnight’ with pathos and power at the conclusion.
This production was unafraid to demonstrate the melancholy heart of the story and especially after the interval it was more solemn in tone, which gave ‘No More’ and ‘No One is Alone’ resonance and an understandable conclusion to the arc of the story. Meighan also chose to employ some extra scenes that I have not seen onstage before, the inclusion of ‘Our Little World’ as a duet for Rapunzel (Sasha Carillo) worked well in developing an underused character, whilst alternate lyrics were employed during some songs and the finale which added interest for those of the audience who have seen this show on numerous occasions. Any reservations I have are based around the book by James Lapine, the show would benefit from trimming its lengthy runtime and the denseness of the overlapping storyline and intense lyricism rewards close concentration but can lose more casual audience members.
Overall, a satisfyingly strong interpretation of a Sondheim classic, which beautifully portrays both the humour and musicality but emphasises the darkness at the heart of this fairy tale.
Playing until 24th June, for tickets click https://www.altrinchamgarrick.co.uk/
Reviewer: Paul Wilcox
Reviewed: 19th June 2023
North West End UK Rating: