Spectacular foray into the woods

26 March 2023

Emma Jayakumar puts her Sondheim reservations aside and is caught up in the lavish design and exhilarating performances in the fractured fairytale world of Into The Woods.

Into the Woods, West Australian Opera
His Majesty’s Theatre, 24 March 2023

As clever as he is as a lyricist, Stephen Sondheim’s music has never completely captured me.

However, my reservations with some of the stylistic and repetitive aspects of Sondheim’s composition aside, West Australian Opera’s production of his dark fairytale Into the Woods is an outstanding achievement. 

The cast are top notch, the acting and movement playful and vibrant, and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra players are on point and well led by music director Jen Winley.

Into the Woods (with book by James Lapine) puts a be-careful-what-you-wish-for twist on the stories behind some well-known fairytale characters.

Into The woods. A dark witch character looms over a distraught young woman with very long blonde hair decorated with flowers
Prudence Sanders as Rapunzel and Maria Mercedes as the Witch. Photo: West Beach Studio

Cameron Menzies, who as artistic director of Northern Ireland Opera first staged this production in Belfast last year, clearly understands the darkly comic and emotional heart of the piece, and communicates this succinctly and without fussiness.

In a stroke of directorial know-how, he has all the soloists sing and recite their dialogue in Australian accents. I love this detail and nod to his Australian audience.

Menzies’ direction is clear, emotionally engaging and never boring. It is teamed with wonderfully precise movement direction by Jennifer Rooney, ensuring the ensemble moments and choreography are fun and rousing.

Niall McKeever’s set is a work of art itself. As we wait for the show to start, the curtain is open, revealing a large and spiky circular spiral encasing a long staircase, which is frequently used to represent the ominous woods, the castle throne room, and various characters’ houses.

Teamed with Kevin Treacy’s highly effective lighting design, the set comes alive as sinister or welcoming environments, aided by the central core of the circle encasing a large projection of the moon.

It’s an exhilarating scene and creates fantastic backdrops for the big belter moments of the soloists, particularly Maria Mercedes’ monsterly and emotionally guttural Witch.

McKeever is also behind the design of the jaw-dropping costumes; Cinderella’s dresses a particular highlight.

There are so many textual gems delivered beautifully in Into the Woods that make me laugh out loud.

Into the Woods. Two men in military jackets and kilts appear to be pleading emotively
Lachlann Lawton (Cinderella’s Prince) and Joshua Firman (Rapunzel’s Prince) bring warmth and wit to their performance. Photo: West Beach Studio

In Any moment as he tries to seduce the Baker’s Wife, Cinderella’s Prince (Lachlann Lawton) sings: “Life is often so unpleasant, you must know that, as a peasant. Best to take a moment present, as a present, for the moment.”  

Lawton sings and moves wonderfully well as both the Prince and the Wolf, with little shiny parts of his awesome operatic baritone hinted at skilfully. His onstage brother Joshua Firman (Rapunzel’s Prince) matches his comedic flair with warm baritone loveliness and wit.

Samantha Clarke as the Baker’s Wife dominates this show vocally with her delightful characterisation of the dowdy and desperate-for-a-child young woman. Clarke really understands how to use her powerful instrument and draws us all in with her vulnerability and charm.

Her onstage husband James Millar (Baker) is likewise a sensitive and highly capable actor with an inviting and clear voice full of emotion. Peter Coleman-Wright is perfectly cast as the Narrator, and his small moments of singing are memorable.

The rest of the cast are uniformly excellent. As Little Red, Sophia Wasley’s silver-pretty voice shines through in pops of colour; Cinderella’s (Claire Lyon) No One is Alone scene with Red in the second half is a moment of pure bliss – clear and unaffected and beautifully delivered.

Prudence Sanders’ gorgeous Rapunzel adds lovely flashes of colour, while the other impressive cast members relish their moments to deliver the challenging and textually dense score with precision and mastery.

This excellent production is a wonderful showcase of the depth of Australian artistic talent, and would be right at home on any of the top stages of the world.

Into The Woods continues this week from Tuesday 28 March, closing on Saturday 1 April 2023

Pictured top: The full cast of ‘Into The Woods’ amid the stunning spiral staircase set. Photo: West Beach Studio

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Author —
Emma Jayakumar

Emma Jayakumar is an Australian composer and librettist whose recent major works include commissions for West Australian Opera, the ABC, Darwin Symphony Orchestra, Awesome Arts, West Australian Ballet and Music Book. Emma is an advocate for accessible works for young audiences, as well as new music celebrating diverse Australian voices.

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