Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods is a fairytale musical. Naturally, one based more on the Brothers Grimm than Disney princesses, with a bloodthirsty Little Red Riding Hood, blinded Ugly Sisters, and straying Prince Charmings. Pembroke College’s production, running this week at the Pichette Auditorium, combines a solid cast with an impressive band and effective staging to create a sparkling opening night which, despite a few hitches, do the score and book more than justice.
The opening scene, featuring most of the ensemble in a complicated interweaving chorus with each character describing a wish for something better, provided a crash course in Sondheim’s style for anyone who had wandered in unprepared. Although he rarely writes vocal lines in harmony, the complex scoring from the band made up the difference, allowing the singers space to make the lyrics clear and impactful. All the voices were strong, and particular mention should go to the lovely soprano of Olivia Waring as Cinderella and touching duet ‘Our Little World’ between Anissa Berry as the witch and Betty Makharinsky as her daughter Rapunzel.
While on the subject of singing, my main criticism of the production would certainly be the decision to use radio mikes, meaning the singers were often too loud, even at the very back, and the sound spoiled by static from overloading the microphones. The Pichette Auditorium is not large, and most of the singers had more than sufficient power to make themselves heard without amplification, particularly with the band offstage. Not being able to sing at full power meant that several songs (‘Agony’, ‘Last Midnight’, ‘Moments in the Woods’) were made more difficult for the singers.
Into the Woods is a strange show, even for Sondheim. The first act is long, nearly 1½ hours, beginning with ‘Once upon at time’ and ending with ‘Happily ever after’ in a fully realised plot arc. It does not, as would be typical, end on a sudden twist or descend into chaos, leaving the audience wanting more as they go for their ice cream. Instead, the story really seems to be completely finished, only the narrator’s ‘to be continued’ implying that there is more to come. The second half is clunkier, less plotted than the first, with characters being killed off left, right and centre without a real sense of moving forward. A powerful metaphor, as the narrator is eliminated, of the characters breaking free from their imposed stories, but less engaging to watch for it.
It is interesting to compare Into the Woods with some of Sondheim’s other famous musicals, and its closest in many ways, including chronologically, is Sunday in the Park with George, first produced in 1984, directly before Into the Woods in 1987. By then, Sondheim had already created Company (1970), A Little Night Music (1973), and Sweeney Todd, (1979), all of which had very distinctive musical styles, meant to fit the particular theme of the show (A Little Night Music is almost entirely in waltz-time, for instance). But Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods are remarkably similar musically, although Sunday features an emphasis on staccato phrases and pizzicato playing to emulate George Seurat’s pointillist style of painting. Woods is much less focused musically, instead giving different characters their own themes to lesser or greater effect (the witch’s rap, for instance, is almost impossible to perform clearly enough for the wit and humour of the lines to be apparent). Both shows also feature complicated mother-child relationships and abandonment, as Sondheim brooded over his own difficult story while writing them.
Into the Woods has some great comic moments, both in throwaway lines (“Life is often so unpleasant/ You must know that, as a peasant”) and whole songs like ‘Agony’ or ‘On the steps of the palace’. But it is also one of the best musicals at portraying characters who, for all their fairytale lives, are real to each other. They are trying to make their lives make sense, wresting control from fate and, in doing so, realising that they now have to make the decisions (“You decide what’s good/ You decide alone/ But no one is alone”). The baker and his wife have a real marriage, complete with bickering and mutual support; the witch wants only, obsessively, to protect her daughter from the dangerous world. Jack wants a friend and a pet. The cast do a great job of bringing out both the humour and the pathos of this sprawling show, with performances which will only improve without the first-night nerves and lighting hitches. Into the Woods is a thought-provoking, fun musical, which combines the witty, the touching, and the plain ridiculous in a story about fairytales taken to their logical conclusions.