Into the Woods review: Happy ever after in this fairytale mash-up

Stephen Sondheim’s deconstructed fairytale gets an inventive treatment

INTO THE WOODS

Lyric Theatre, Belfast
★★★★☆

“Careful the things you say, children will listen,” Stephen Sondheim warns in his 1986 musical Into the Woods, a fairytale mash-up that spins its own moral and casts its own spell. We meet the main characters in the first few minutes of Act One, as they gather to establish the terms of the quest that will bring them together and the tongue-in-cheek comedy of Sondheim’s ambitious conceit. There’s a barren Baker and his Wife (Alastair Brookshaw and Sinéad O’Kelly); a cow-loving kid and his impoverished mother (Conor Quinn and Wendy Ferguson); a greedy red-caped brat (Samantha Giffard) en route to her granny’s house; a pair of resentful and bored princesses; and two princes “raised to be charming not sincere”. Their individual stories collide when a witch on a quest for eternal youth, played by Allison Harding, intervenes, employing a Narrator (Sean Kearns), “an objective observer [who] moves the story along”, before sacrificing him in pursuit of a happy ending.

While the thematic inspiration for Into the Woods is drawn from children’s stories, Sondheim’s sophisticated score makes no concessions in its complexity. It requires immense flexibility on the part of all singers and the accompanying orchestra, and this production for Northern Ireland Opera expects no less from its company of performers. Sinéad O’Kelly, Kelly Mathieson and Mary McCabe are in particularly fine form as The Baker’s Wife, Cinderella and Rapunzel respectively, but, just as Sondheim’s songs overlap, so the real strength of this production is the well-knit ensemble.

Director Cameron Menzies weaves the many moving parts together fluently, and he is not cowed by the demands of the staging, finding inventive ways to animate cows, bring giants to life and dissect wolves so that grannies can be rescued. Kevin Treacy’s lighting and Russell Goldsmith’s sound design are critical here, as is Niall McKeever’s set, a timber structure that spirals upwards, provides various levels of visual interest, as well as different platforms for concurrent stories to unfold.

If the energy of the second act flags, it is not the fault of the cast, but of Sondheim’s composition, which is not content with the traditional resolution of its first act, but wants to probe the underlying mechanics of the fairytale structure too, relying heavily on James Lapine’s book rather than his own music to do so. The finale reprieve of Children Will Listen, however, restores stability to the show and a happy ever after for all. Only a national tour, marketed to family audiences, could make it better.

Until February 27th

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