Into the Woods: “More Grimm Than Disney”

Have you ever wondered what happens after happily ever after?  What if fairy tale characters all lived and co-existed in the same world?  How would these characters fare in a real life setting where all actions have consequences?  This critically acclaimed Broadway musical explores just that and more.

A collaboration between award-winning writer James Lapine and renowned composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods is inspired by several Brothers Grimm fairy tales, most notably Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and Rapunzel.  It takes everything you know about these much loved childhood stories and puts a dark and comical spin to it.  Jack and the Beanstalk also makes an appearance as well as an original tale involving a baker and his wife.

The premise revolves mostly around three characters – Cinderella, Jack and the Baker.  They each have a wish for something: Cinderella wants to go to the King’s festival, Jack wishes his cow Milky-White would give him milk, and the Baker and his wife long for a child.  In the first act they go on a quest into the woods and we see the lengths they go through to get what their hearts desire.  The second act – “Once upon a time…later” – sees the three content but yet again wishing for more.  They venture into the woods again where they soon discover that their actions (from the first act) have triggered some unwanted consequences.

This musical has been reproduced around the world and has earned many accolades over the years.  With an extensive song list of thirty-one numbers and a complex plot that consists of many disparate, interweaving storylines, this was definitely one mammoth of a production to undertake.  But with Aaron Tindell at the directing helm – whose recent production of The Red Chair* was musical theatre at its finest – I knew it was in good hands.

The Pumphouse is certainly the perfect venue and match for this adventure in the woods. From the picturesque views overlooking Lake Pupuke on arrival to the performance space being inside a quaint and cozy cottage with a wooden interior, not to mention the addition of accompanying “forest sounds”, the surroundings and atmosphere alone (whether intentional or not) set the mood even before the play starts.

As soon as you take your seats, your eyes are immediately drawn to the stage.  There are three rotating platforms – which we soon learn represent the three main story arcs of the narrative – and two raised balconies with the orchestra just visible behind one of them.  In a story that takes place over and jumps between multiple locations, I thought these five additional stages were a very clever way to expand and create additional performance spaces.  Considering the amount of movement on the stage every scene and location change transitions smoothly into the next with minimal distractions which is a huge credit to the lighting and staging crew.

A multi-layered story calls for a large ensemble cast and I was really impressed by the caliber of performers in this production.  Everyone gave a superb and polished performance and it was great that they all got their moment to shine.  The youngest performer, Cole Johnston, was engaging and personable as the Narrator and even though most of the time he is just a spectator to the action that unfolds, he didn’t get lost in it and remained in character.  The Little Red Riding Hood in this story is less helpless and more rebellious and I thought the attitude and “bite” Heather Wilcock brought to the role was great.  Standout performance for me was easily Jane Horder’s portrayal of the Witch; I felt she perfectly embodied the physicality and spirit of the character.

In terms of the music and vocals, the show is a treat to the ears.  The orchestra, under the skilled direction of Andrew Christie, came together beautifully as one sound – flowing seamlessly with the vocals and also complementing what was happening on stage.  What I appreciated about the vocal performances was that the songs never lost its storytelling quality.  The performers struck a great balance between demonstrating vocal prowess and (more importantly) delivering the story compellingly; not just with their voice but with their heart and through their facial expressions and body language too.

There were a few audio issues stemmed from the wireless headset microphones but other than that, this is an impressive, excellently staged and well-rounded production.  Do not be intimidated by the complexity of the narrative  – the story is rich, captivating and an enjoyable watch.  If you want to see what a more cynical and sinister side of a fairy tale looks like, let the North Shore Music Theatre take you on this fantastical adventure.

The Whimsical Banana rates Into The Woods: 4/5 bananas

A dark twist on a fairy tale – definitely more Grimm than Disney!

Into The Woods is playing at The Pumphouse Theatre by Killarney Park in Takapuna until 17 November.  For more information and to buy tickets, click here.

Thanks to Passion PR!

*To read my review of The Red Chair, click here.

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