By BRUCE DENNILL
Into The Woods / Directed by Steven Stead / Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, Johannesburg
When casting around for source material for a musical, there’s not much richer on offer than fairy tales. Complex, detailed, full of lessons, occasionally horrifying – they’re wonderful as is (just add music), and they’re even better when they’re twisted with intent, as Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine have done in Into The Woods. That intent is ambiguous, but effective to a greater or lesser degree whichever perspective you might embrace.
Certainly, the mash-up of elements of the tales of (mainly) Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Jack And The Beanstalk creates and colours in a range of grey areas smudging the lines between good and evil and right and wrong. But there are also examinations of people’s tendencies to make terrible decisions for very little reason or reward, or to react to similar behaviour differently depending on their relationships to the person or people acting out.
The darkness in the subtext emerges as you dwell on what you see – when you have a gap at interval or after the curtain comes down. What plays out on stage is too full of energy, humour and movement to allow too much introspection mid-scene, and the kudos for that must be shared by all involved from director Steven Stead, whose penchant for precision is fully indulged by a talented cast who know their characters inside out and hit every mark, to puppeteers Brandon Moulder and Naret Loots, who manipulate various creatures while being theoretically invisible.
Into The Woods is, as sportscasters inanely point out when talking about the matches they’re commentating on, a game of two halves. Act One feels like a full show in itself, to the extent that many audience members mulling around at interval remark to each other: “Where can this go from here? What else is there to say?” It involves a number of concurrent plotlines. A Baker (Earl Gregory) and his wife (Jessica Sole) are sent on a quest by a witch (Kate Normington) who has placed a curse on them. Cinderella (Haylea Heyns) dreams of going to the King’s Festival, but then finds that the high life is not all it’s cracked up to be and that princes aren’t necessarily charming. Little Red Riding Hood (Megan Rigby) delivers supplies to her grandmother while dodging a number of obstacles. And Jack (Graham Wicks) has to trade his beloved cow for some money to help himself and his overbearing mother (Candice Litsenborgh).
These well-known stories are cleverly restructured to intersect with each other, with the presence of characters from other familiar contexts complicating matters onstage and keeping audience members on their toes.
Act Two has the versions of the characters who emerged from the interactions in Act One teaming up against an outside force that means them all harm. The dynamics established in the first part of production change completely, which takes a little getting used to. Here, the intent from Sondheim and Lapine’s side is to underline that happy endings don’t really exist, in fiction or otherwise. As the body count mounts (often via ridiculous and bleakly hilarious means) and those who survive indulge in conduct unbecoming of folks who should ostensibly be providing maxims for audiences to live by, the piece takes on a tone that’s markedly changed from its pre-interval scenes. There is no cute and cuddly resolution, though the ending is satisfying in its way.
There are several standout performances from a uniformly excellent cast. Normington takes full advantage of the chance to apply her talents to truly multi-faceted material, with her combination of vocal expertise (Stay With Me is a highlight), phrasing and timing being especially praiseworthy. Sole displays a fantastic range of expression and movement to go with one of the more fully-developed characters in the Baker’s Wife. And Zak Hendrikz as Cinderella’s Prince is hysterical – spot-on with the physical comedy required of his vain, fickle character and supporting that with top-notch singing. He’s well matched by Nathan Kruger as Rapunzel’s Prince, with the pair recalling – for less theatre-literate audiences, perhaps – the chemistry and A-class daftness of Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller in the film Zoolander, in which the latter duo play air-headed male models.
The two main elements of Greg King’s set do admirable service as a number of different backdrops and props, and musical director Drew Bakker and his team handle Sondheim’s tricky soundtrack with aplomb.
Into The Woods requires a little more investment from those wishing to extract full value from the piece than many simpler musicals with more linear stories. But it is affecting stuff, inspiring as many belly laughs as it does concerns about reactions to apparently casual cruelty. And admiration for the technical acuity of everyone involved is unavoidable.