Into the Woods (Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine) The National Youth Music Theatre, Covent Garden Festival, Peacock Theatre, London, 28 May 2000. (P & AW)
The best of Sondheim's musicals challenge contemporary operas and should not be under-rated. Into the Woods is one of them and, although I have seen it previously on TV (the original USA production) and twice in the theatre, it holds its interest on repetition easily. This reincarnation by 17 to 20 yr. olds is staggering in its overall professionalism. NYMT is a jewel in educational arts, comparable to our world class National Youth Orchestra, and it offers wonderful training and performance opportunities on stage, in the orchestra pit, and also behind the scenes.
Into the Woods is a marvellous conflation of fairy tales, bringing together Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (the Beanstalk one), Rapunzel, with nothing turning out as it should and many ironic slants on the traditional comforting 'happy ever after' endings.
The second act is unexpectedly (for those who don't know their Sondheim) dark. A few examples from its complexities of stories within stories of witches and giants, and no-one as they first appear - the baker's wife having achieved her life's ambition to have a child, fails to find herself fulfilled. She hands the child over, starts roaming the woods in search of 'something' and falls into the arms of a flirtacious Prince. The giant's footsteps (social conscience) precipitate a tree falling onto the baker's wife (guilty conscience) and killing her. The straying Prince, having earlier pursued and gained his Cinderella at great length, is rejected by her; no fairytale acceptance of anything goes in this household. He has a suitable exit, flitting off with a floozy.
The princess reverts to her Cinderella state and makes her journey back into the woods (a metaphor for adjustment). Having been handed the baker's baby, the indications are that she has found a new role, as a stepmother and mate to the bereaved baker, who has tried ever so hard, and against the odds, to do the right thing.
The Wolf in Red Riding Hood has a ferocious appetite that does clearly not emanate from a hungry stomach but from his revealingly camouflaged lower organ. However, rapists are given short shrift and execution is the only solution. Revenge accomplished, the victims, Red Riding Hood and Grandmother, are given another lease of life, wiser and more circumspect.
It is invidious to single out individuals in a remarkably strong cast, but the 16 yr old Cinderella, Laura May Stewart, and the delicious Little Red Riding Hood, Akiya Henry, both bring back smiles of remembrance and there was a virtuoso performance by Kristopher Smith, marking him as a future star, doubling as the feckless Prince and the very scary Wolf.
Mike Pattenden and Chris Lambert were in charge of the proceedings, with a team in which, for Seen&Heard's particular interest, the sensitive manipulation of the sound design and enhancement, which was so discreet that one was unaware of loud speakers, stood out. This great show will be in Oxford in July and Cardiff in August - if in reach, don't miss it!
Peter & Alexa Woolf
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