TAKE A HANDFUL of western fairy tales. Inject into them a goodly measure of Jungian myth-making, and Rudolf Steiner thinking, spiced with some pop psychology, tight Broadway sequences, a dollop of cynicism, some good rhythmic writing and not a little tongue in cheek-ness and you get a rollicking beast of a musical with the balls and the pizzazz to take the narratives far out of the ken of children. This is what you get with the Stephen Sondheim production Into the Woods, on show at the moment at Montecasino.
Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk are evolved and honed together under the watchful eye of an all-seeing, scintillating and hilariously terrible witch (Kate Normington), to say nothing of a side of Rapunzel and another of Rumplestilskin, with a cameo of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty tossed in for good measure. It’s like a bit of a soapie with a Grimm twist.
Cast in a set that turns on its own axis and replete with a cow and a wolf, a hen who can lay golden eggs and some pretty princes, it’s a fantastic piece of work that features a great cast and splendid choreography. There are moments with sequential singing parts that dovetail and segue with one another, evoking no less than Benjamin Britten’s 1945 opera Peter Grimes in their audibility and harmonies.
The only thing is, the work is so satisfyingly crafted to give closure to every frame that the interval break feels like the end and you have to listen carefully to the words and the theatre’s overhead voice so that you remember to see the second half.
And there’s the rub on this show: the second half brings in a lot more faux- and pop psychoanalysis, seeing Rapunzel with some kind of emotional trauma and several of the women protagonists with either too many babies or a husband with roving thoughts and hands. There are also a lot more love-related songs and the soppiness is ramped up all the way. In short, it gets a little tired, and the Snow White and Sleeping Beauty presences are something of a red herring.
With the fabulous Candice van Litsenborgh in the role of the mother of Jack (he of beanstalk fame) — played by Graeme Wicks, the work plays into the old clichés that often see the good girls and beautiful princesses as bland, but this is helped along with snappy and cheeky lyrics.
Having said that, the sheer spectacle with its well constructed narrative voice, its humour and madness is a delight. In the capable narrative hands of Michael Richard who doubles as some kind of a wood sprite, until the powers that be knock him off, an invisible giant and the sparkly witch, who is really a beautiful woman under an evil spell, the work is unabashed in exploring the social horrors and moral repercussions presented in stories by the Grimm brothers in the 19th century.
Whatever you do, though, don’t bring the children. This work is constructed with a grown up understanding of the linked and rich wisdoms of fairytales and the casting of magic that has more to do with myth than silliness or childlike-ness. Your child will get restless within the first few minutes of complex lyrics.
- Into the Woods is composed and written by Stephen Sondheim based on the book by James Lapine is directed and staged by Steven Stead. It features design by Drew Bakker (musical supervisor), Leigh Meyer (choreography), Greg King (set), Neil Stuart Harris (costume), Tina Le Roux (lighting), Naret Loots and Brandon Moulder (puppetry) and Mark Malherbe (sound), and is performed by Earl Gregory, Alyssa Harrison, Ashleigh Harvey, Zak Hendrikz, Haylea Heyns, Nathan Kruger, Naret Loots, LJ Neilson, Kate Normington, Michael Richard, Sarah Richard, Megan Rigby, Dianne Simpson, Schoemann Smit, Jessica Sole, Candice Van Litsenborgh and Graeme Wicks, at the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino in Fourways, until April 21. Call 011 511 1818.