Stephen Sondheim’s fairytale musical is a sharp warning to be careful what you wish for, you may just get it. And Sondheim fans are enjoying something of a feast in central England at present, with Assassins having recently finished its run in Sheffield, this current Derby production of Into the Woods, and the rarely-staged Pacific Overtures about to open at Leicester Haymarket.
Assassins won critical acclaim, and Leicester Haymarket director Paul Kerryson is a proven dab hand at staging Sondheim’s work. In Derby, the Playhouse has had hits in recent years with Sweeney Todd and Company. So does its latest Sondheim offering live up to expectation?
But somewhere the magic is lost. Purists will wince from time to time as the orchestra’s rendering of the score goes occasionally awry, dazzling comic opportunities are missed and the very essence of the story is left in no man’s land.
From the musical’s “once upon a time” beginning, introducing a series of fairytale characters and their individual wishes, through their journey to make their dreams possible, and the “happy ever after” end of act one, individual performances are strong.
Jody Crosier and the aforementioned Kerslake make two of the most hilarious princes I’ve ever seen, Beechey is a gloriously enchanting Cinderella with a voice of pure gold to match her slippers, Annette McLaughlin brings so much to the baker’s wife that when baker Glenn Carter utters “I relied on her for everything”, you really believe him, on stage and off. Lavender is a charming narrator/mysterious man, Criswell brings a powerhouse voice to the witch, even if the complex lyrics are not always blessed with clarity, and designer Patrick Connellan deserves a nod for a genius leering wolf headpiece.
Act two is darker and harsher, offering the cautionary warnings central to most children’s stories, but this production only ever skirts the surface. It’s not a Grimm evening by any stretch - but, while it’s always a joy to hear Sondheim’s songs sung live, with no gravitas to the tales of morality or depth to the characters, ultimately, the heart of these Woods is missing.