James Brining is building a strong track record directing Stephen Sondheim classics. His Sweeney Todd at West Yorkshire Playhouse almost three years ago was unforgettable. That show lives on - playing in Brussels in June - which means he has two of the great writer's shows playing simultaneously and, interestingly, each of them are productions with opera companies. This Into the Woods is the first collaboration between two of the region's cultural powerhouses, the Playhouse and Opera North.
The scene is set as the audience enter the theatre into a naturalistic understated classroom which offers little allusion to the fantasy world the story is to soon inhabit. Teachers confer casually, and children listen attentively to a narrator. The school room soon morphs in to our woods, yet remnants of the classroom remain throughout, as do the children, linking the realistic to the fantastical. And there's a neat pay off at the end of the first act which brings us back to the classroom where we started.
At the story's core are a baker and his wife who desperately want a child, yet a witch's curse has rendered them childless. Their journey is then linked to several known fairytales in a near farcical manner and, paired with Sondheim's complex and sometimes discordant music, it's not always instantly gratifying - I've felt lost by the first act in the past. But not this time: to balance a frenetic single act of theatre so seamlessly together can't be easy, but Brining and his team did it. And so by the break it's happily ever after.
In act two we see what happens 'after happily ever after' and it is outstanding. Suddenly, a bleaker atmosphere brings extraordinary expression from these characters, suspense and still the odd touch of humour. Sondheim's hidden, subtly repeated phrases come alive and it's impossible to draw the eyes away from Colin Richmond's visually captivating design which evokes an increasingly sinister foreboding. Especially interesting were the ever growing number of swings hung from the ceiling on long chains, always in motion, which were more menacing than the giant - a huge disfigured doll with a Yorkshire accent.
The best moments of all come from the stand alone songs, especially in the hands of these pitch perfect singers. "Agony" is such a tune and wasn't over-egged by Princes Warren Gillespie and Ross McInroy. The Witch and Rapunzel, Claire Pascoe and Amy Freston, convey sweet strains of melody on "Our Little World" and "Stay With Me", and "No More" is so emotive it's a showstopper. It's not fair to cite individual performances when they were all so good. There's not a stray note all evening.