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Reviews/Music/Musical Theatre

Into the Australian woods

31 March 2021

WAAPA’s Australianised Into the Woods is an adventurous adaptation that didn’t quite hit the mark, says Erin Hutchinson.

Into the Woods, Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) ·
State Theatre Centre, Studio Underground, 29 March 2021 ·

WAAPA’s new Australian adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods, with its invitation to come into the Australian woods with a group of “politically aware, socially outcast, provocative young adults” piqued my curiosity. How could the much-loved 1980’s musical featuring fractured Grimms’ fairy tales fit into the Australian landscape? And would the topical social comments explored in Sondheim’s text (based on the book by James Lapine) be contemporised by the change in scenery?

Director Nicole Stinton creates a world where Into The Woods is the show within a show, much like a sharing of ghost stories around a fire at a school camp. The production opens (it could really have been a pre-show) with a mismatch of young adults gathering in the woods under the supervision of a Teacher/Narrator, played by Gus Noakes.

Sondheim melds the stories of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood into a subversive musical commentary on the perils of journeying through life, with plenty of adult humour. Each character has a wish they are longing for and with much interweaving, each achieves their dream in Act One. You’d be forgiven for leaving at this point, with the stories so neatly tied in that Disneyesque way, but Act Two explores beyond the “happy ending”, considering what happens after these goals have been attained.

I was excited to hear Aussie accents onstage (the benefit of the adaptation) but unfortunately, many members of this cast struggled with maintaining the accent throughout the songs. They did a great job with presenting the humorous stock characters though, with highlights including the horsey antics of the two Princes (Kyle Colburn and Samuel Moloney), and the thieving juvenile Jack (Noah Godsell) with his slightly troubling attachment to his cow, Milky White (Amber Scates). Outstanding performances came from the women: Zoe Crisp as the Baker’s Wife, Anita Karabajakian as Cinderella, and Brittany Morton as Little Red Riding Hood. Emma Haines was utterly enchanting as the Witch, delivering with pathos, presence and lovely clarity of voice. 

Emma Haines as the Witch in ‘Into the Woods’, with the orchestra visible behind strips of calico. Photo by Stephen Heath

The Studio Underground is a lovely theatre for this production, and the set design by Valentina Authelet is deceptively simple but highly effective, with moveable wooden platforms creating a multi-levelled space and strips of strung calico evoking an enormous weeping willow. Being able to see the small student orchestra, conducted by David King tucked upstage through the strips of fabric was a delightful bonus. Kalib Gwilym’s lighting design was creatively moody at times, and made the most of all the texture on the set.

The universal themes in Lapine’s book along with Sondheim’s skilful compositions make this musical a favourite for many, and it’s certainly a good choice for this group of third year (graduating) Music Theatre and Music students to tackle. The question of the purpose and effectiveness of the Australian adaptation remains unanswered though. Stinton could have gone further and been bolder in grasping the opportunities such an adaptation can offer, and she certainly has a way to go with evidencing a “politically aware” and “provocative” approach.

It would be wonderful to see a director grab Into the Woods with both hands and play up the dark, ridiculous outcomes for each of the characters, especially when it comes to the socially relevant negative consequences for the female characters. Because I bet, if you’re one of the lucky few who get to watch this sold-out run, you’ll agree with the Witch’s response to Sondheim’s judging, perfect, fairy tale characters when she says, “I’m not good, I’m not nice, I’m just right”.

Pictured top: WAAPA students invite audiences into the Australian woods in their production of a Sondheim classic. Photo by Stephen Heath

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Author —
Erin Hutchinson

Erin Hutchinson is an actor, singer, theatre maker and teacher who is passionate about local arts. Whilst she wishes she could still be a ninja on the monkey bars, she’s content to enjoy a turn on the swings… easier to still hold a glass of wine.

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