FIRST things first – this was an outstanding show, with a level of consistent excellence in acting, singing, playing, directing and the design elements that one finds once rarely in any theatre, let alone on the amateur stage. Milborne Port Opera should be thanked and congratulated.
Steven Sondheim’s 1980s musical ‘Into the Woods’ is a fascinating piece, by no means an obvious crowd-pleaser in that it challenges and surprises at every turn with black humour and mordant wit, subverting any expectations the audience might have about fairy stories being jolly tales to entertain children. It uses the plots of a number of well-known Grimm fairy stories. We see the characters gain a fragile happiness after a fraught and complex first half, only to suffer disappointments, betrayals and deaths in an increasingly bleak second half. Sondheim was allegedly inspired by Bruno Bettelheim’s work on the underlying symbolic and Freudian subtext of fairy stories, and he reveled in exploring the dark side of these timeless tales. The fairy godmother fails to show up, and we’re far from the saccharine world of Disney.
The show is very plot-heavy, especially in the first half, with the complex and interweaving stories of the quest for a child by a baker and his wife, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack (of the beanstalk), Little Red Riding Hood and a wicked witch. Candice Marcus’s clarity in directing was very useful, and, unlike in some previous productions, we always got the basics of who was doing what to whom and why. She also paced it admirably, so we were carried along and gripped by every twist. Hats off too, to the cast for their clear and vivid characterisations and their usually precise diction in getting across the vital information in their sung parts.
The design team wisely ignored any temptation to attempt naturalism. If we are clearly told that a young man in white dungarees is a cow, we happily accept it, and don’t need fake horns to convince us. The set was simple, flexible and beautiful – white paper streamers against a deep blue background represented trees, with quivering, rustling leaves above (of books, to remind us that this is not a wood but a story about a wood). The stage was usually bare apart from a set of steps that could be adapted to a range of purposes including Rapunzel’s tower. Stage hands magically became birds or harps without fuss.
Sondheim’s music and lyrics are a constant source of delight for the listener. In the programme, Musical Director Caroline D’Cruz writes of her love of ‘the clever words, the contemporary feel and the vivacity of the music’, and her talented nine-piece band and the outstanding group of actor/singers on stage did full justice to the book and the score. To single out performers for individual praise would seem like a betrayal of the collective spirit and astonishing consistency of this brilliantly-cast show.