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The Landor Theatre presents

 

Into the Woods

 

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

 

Book by James Lapine

 

Directed by Robert McWhir

 

Landor Theatre

 

17 September – 17 October 2009

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ary Couzens

A review by Chad Armitstead for EXTRA! EXTRA!

 

There’s alchemy between tragedy and love that makes living a powerful kind of magic.  A lot of theatre seeks to tap into this magic.  Into the Woods gets it just right.  Director Robert McWhir’s production of Sondheim’s masterpiece at the Landor Theatre casts a spell of heartbreaking warmth.

The ‘fractured fairy tale’ revolves around characters familiar to readers of fairy tales...Or, anyone who has seen the ‘less offensive’ Disney canon.  The Baker (Leo Andrew) and the Baker’s Wife (Sarah Head) want a child more than anything in the world, but are cursed by a witch (Lori Hayley Fox) for the past misdeeds of the baker’s father.  The Witch offers to lift the curse if they will bring her a white cow, a gold slipper, yellow hair, and a blood-red cloak.  The couple’s resolve is tested when it becomes clear they may have to employ some ‘unconventional methods’ to obtain these items from the fairy tale characters on their own quests in the woods:  Jack (of Beanstalk fame)(Jonathan Eio), Little Red Riding Hood (Rebecca Wicking), Cinderella (Sue Appleby) and Rapunzel (Jenny Perry).  Many of the characters achieve their ‘happily ever after,’ only to have to band together to fight the wife of Jack’s giant.  She’s fresh from the land of the giants and bent on revenge.  Many ever-afters are cut short before the giant is done.

As in most great stories, no character is all villain or all hero, but each one’s plight is painfully sympathetic.  Each one seeks that which they want most, but none can never quite have everything they want at one time.  As they achieve what they want most, they always lose someone or something else.  Or they just end up wanting more.  It’s all perhaps a bit too familiar.

Into the Woods is what many musicals wish they were but aren’t quite—though they’d never admit it.  It doesn’t skimp on story or cover a thin plot with flashy numbers and pyrotechnics.  Into the Woods’ stories are as dense as the forest where the characters’ tales unfold.  The book and music work like the teeth in the cogs of a Swiss watch.  No phrase is wasted, every one fitting into the emotional rhythm that drives the show.  The strength of the writing all but guarantees that even the worst performance won’t strip the story of its heart.  Fortunately, McWhir’s cast proves to be the script’s equal.

When the first notes break the silence, characters begin to emerge from Nina Morley’s ingenious set—a world made of oversize books manipulated into gates, magic trees and palaces by two imps, Mischief and Mayhem (two inventions of the production, probably culled and styled from Arthur Rackham’s Book of Goblins, which makes up part of the set).  Using the Puck/Ariel-esque imps, the production achieves all the magic and diversity of the forest. 

As the lights come up on the intimate space, one worries that the cast may not be up to the unnerving task of selling songs at close-range.  But by the end of the second half, every significant character has made your heart swell or break with them at least once.

Jonathan Eio (Jack) comes up with the first jewel of the evening.  His boyish sincerity and enthusiasm in “Giants in the Sky” almost win him show-stealing appeal.  Sarah Head (the Baker’s Wife) owns the Landor as she laments the way moments tear your heart out to remind you where it belongs in her “Moments in the Woods.”  Together with the Baker, Jack and Little Red Riding Hood, Sue Appleby’s (Cinderella) insistent gentleness assures Red Riding Hood and the audience that “No One is Alone” and convinces that life is made more of love than isolation, a nuanced performance by an actress who knows and respects her craft. 

For those who insist on finding fault, there were moments in the show that perhaps eluded certain singers’ ranges.  Also, in a cast that invested fully in the gravity of their quests and achieved touching chemistry in their relationships (especially the Baker and the Baker’s Wife), Lori Hayley Fox’s employment of a bit of comic theatrical affectation in her rendition of the Witch jarred a bit in the first act.  While Broadway trades heavily in camp, at times to great effect, employing hints of it here perhaps prevents stronger identification with the Witch’s plight and sympathy may wander to other characters.   It’s possibly a matter of personal taste and, in any case, Fox and the rest of the cast pull together in the second act to take the audience on a bittersweet, life-affirming emotional journey.

Landor Theatre’s Into the Woods is pared-down in all the right ways, but it fills the small theatre full of warmth.  You’ll leave feeling like being a good person is worth it—a feeling that’s surprisingly scarce in theatre today.  The Landor has traded in the Broadway spectacle of Into the Woods for the sympathetic intimacy of venturing into the forest alongside the characters, breathing the same air they do.  It’s a good trade.

 

 

Box office:  0207 737 7276

 

Landor Theatre London SW9 9PH 

 

Book online:  www.landortheatre.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

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