As Melbourne’s own Stephen Sondheim specialists, it is appropriate that Watch This is the first company to present a season of the great master’s work after he left this world in November 2021. In a fittingly diverse and creative production, Into The Woods zips and zings afresh, allowing devotees to pay homage whilst also exposing new fans to this deliciously dark work.
“Life was so steady, and now this! When are things going to return to normal?”
Stepmother speaks of the destruction wrought by the Giant’s Wife, and yet the words are just as fitting in regard to our current health predicament. The peasants seek the support and guidance of the ruling class who are too busy deflecting responsibility and helping themselves. If there is hope to be had, it is that the group left behind are stronger and more resiliently prepared to face the future.
Making terrific use of a unique playing space, directors Sonya Suares and Melanie Hillman craft a dynamic, ever engaging staging. With the audience on three sides of the space, the stage and the central floor of the Meat Market Assembly Hall are creatively used, with the provision of myriad entrance and exit points for the much-loved characters to go about their journeys.
Suares and Hillman add humorous touches to the well-known work, one being that Hillman herself replaces the usual patriarchal Narrator, speaking unseen like the type of voice-over narration heard in Arrested Development or Grey’s Anatomy. Choreographer Amy Zhang keeps movement effectively spare and simple, with a strong focus on character work rather than any sort of dance for its own sake.
The direction has a lightness of touch in act one, and the characters, usually played in heightened manner, are interpreted here with a readily accessible everyman/everywoman style. Audience attachment to and identification with the characters amplifies the impact of the dark tonal shift in act two.
As with any independent production, when we are lucky enough to see one, the tight budget calls for creativity and judicious allocation of funds. Generously filling the space with so much greenery that it practically appears overgrown, set designer Sarah Tulloch facilitates multiple points of focus, also cleverly using silhouettes for key heightened moments. Costume designer Jodi Hope brings a sense of real life, and draws extra laughs for the rapid changes when actors play dual roles.
Lighting designer Rob Sowinski skilfully recreates the effect of light streaming through leaves, although this tends to leave faces wanting more illumination at times. Sound designers Marcello Lo Ricco and Steve Cooke contribute highly impactful directional special effects.
If there is an aspect that appears to have had the peak attention of the creative process, and rightly so, it is the polishing and perfecting of Into The Woods’ fiendishly challenging score. Ned Wright Smith as musical director and Trevor Jones as musical supervisor have clearly worked intensely and expertly with cast and musicians alike to deliver what is basically a pristine musical performance that can be simply enjoyed on its own high calibre merits.
Fiona Choi and James Millar lead a sturdy ensemble cast as the resolute Bakers. Millar’s mellifluous vocal tone serves the music beautifully, his gentle speaking voice reinforcing the fact that the Baker’s Wife (literally) wears the trousers. Solid throughout, Choi’s performance reaches a heady zenith in the “Any Moment” / “Moments in the Woods” sequence, her Baker’s Wife melting like butter during an illicit royal intimacy.
Cherine Peck shines in both incarnations of The Witch, her sheer enjoyment of the fiendish role bringing a magnetic glow to her stage presence.
His pure tenor in excellent form, Anthony Craig brings a suitably impish spark to Jack, contrasting this amusingly when doubling as the disdainfully foppish Steward. Elegantly understated, Ava Madon keeps Cinderella endearingly humble, building the young woman’s resilience as the story progresses.
Nick Simpson-Deeks and Raphael Wong score every possible laugh as the vainglorious Princes. As the Wolf, Simpson-Deeks’ gorgeous voice and stylishly sinuous movement successfully distract from the devilish lyrics of “Hello Little Girl.” Successfully crossing over from the world of opera, Wong also hilariously doubles as haughty stepsister Lucinda.
Stage royalty, and a celebrated interpreter of Sondheim, John O’May brings intriguing nuance to the Mysterious Man and withered subjugation to Cinderella’s Father. All class, Jackie Rees brings out the humanity of a trio of roles, avoiding caricature at every step. Jacqui Hoy captures the bone-weary despair of Jack’s Mother, turning on the tiger-mum ferocity when her family is under threat.
In a well-calibrated arc, Lily Baulderstone takes Red Riding Hood from perky brat to seasoned, self-reliant predator. Caitlin Spears utilises her lovely soprano to bring lustrous voice to Rapunzel.
Photos: Jodie Hutchinson