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.

The Red Chair: Obsess + Confess

On entering the Loft at Q, I was immediately transported to some sophisticated piano bar in the heart of New York.  The mood lighting and theatrical fog created a dramatic effect and a sense of  mystery while the cabaret-style seating and gorgeous fairy lights served as the perfect backdrop for what was to come.  Expectations were definitely high and I’m pleased to say I was not disappointed in the slightest.

The Red Chair, under the superb direction of Aaron Tindell, is music theatre like no other.  Four characters – an older man, his cynical long-time lover, a younger guy skeptical about love and a younger woman with a troubled past – all share their stories candidly and emotively through song.

The songs – everything from Edith Piaf to Boy George – form a musical montage of the many romantic and sometimes obsessive emotions one experiences when dealing with love.  Every song transitions seamlessly to the next cultivating in a beautiful and colorful  journey of music which tackle an array of things – unrequited love, lust, jealousy and even a nervous breakdown.

What makes the show truly unique is how the performance is presented.  The red chair that is in the center of the room leads you to believe that that is where the “stage” is but there really isn’t a stage.  Instead the entire space is the stage with the performers freely roaming the room and mingling with audience members, even sitting at other specially lit red chairs that are placed at selected tables.

This blurring of the lines between the audience and the performer provides a very intimate and immersive theatre experience.  You find yourself having a more personal connection with the performers and because of the closeness in proximity, it does feel like you are a part of the performance as well.

I was blown away by the vocal prowess of each performer.  Andrew Laing’s vocals had a wonderful charm and storytelling quality to it that made him so easy to listen to.  Roz Turnbull effortlessly commanded your attention every time she sang.  What I loved most about her performance was the way she fully embodied the song, delivering not only a fantastic vocal but one with loads of personality too.

Melissa Nordhaus impressed me the most with her incredible vocal range and I loved the honest and heartfelt way she interpreted the songs.  My favorite of the four was Will Barling because of his silky tone and that beautiful vibrato.  His rendition of Petrified from the stage musical Taboo sent chills up my spine; my favorite number of the night, hands down.

The Red Chair was just spectacular and truly a magical experience, one I will not soon forget.  It is live music at its finest – a must for those who want to enjoy music theatre with a twist.  Exquisite performances, extraordinary storytelling through song, and an excellent band who bring it all together – huge hats off to Robin Kelly for providing the musical heartbeat to the show.

The Whimsical Banana rates The Red Chair: 5/5 bananas!

The Red Chair is a Dionysos production and is playing at the fabulous Q Theatre until 6th October.  To buy tickets, click here.

Thank you to Passion PR!

This review is also featured on Keeping up with NZ.