In addressing the world of fairytale and wish fulfilment, Sondheim found another way of writing about human relationships and specifically about parents and children. It’s a dazzling score, here conducted by James Holmes, with an opening number punctuated by narrative plot-points and soliloquy, that lasts for almost 15 minutes, underpinned with a march rhythm that propels the whole musical: “Into the woods/To get the thing/That makes it worth/The journeying.”
The childless Baker and his ife want a child. They must first break the Witch’s curse by fulfilling a quest in the mythical stories of Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Jack and the Beanstalk; they must acquire the trophies of a slipper, a red cape, a tress of golden hair and a milk white cow.
This new production by dancer and choreographer Will Tuckett – his directorial debut – for ROH2, the experimental wing of the Royal Opera House, in the Linbury Studio, is clearly sung and given an admirably unfussy staging. The stories collide by the light of the moon in the tangled forest, a physical meshing that’s reflected in one of Sondheim’s most intriguing and inventive scores.
Myself, I prefer this piece to Sunday in the Park, but that may be because the three productions I have seen – the Broadway premiere in 1987, Richard Jones’ London premiere in 1990 and the Crowley brothers’ (John and Bob) Donmar Warehouse revival in 1998 – have all been so theatrically brilliant and engaging.
Tuckett’s production – designed by Lez Brotherston with lighting by Tim Mitchell –sags somewhat in the middle of both acts and seems less urgent, less necessary, except of course for those who have never seen the piece. And there’s a sense of luxury surrounding a project that plays barely 20 sold-out performances (and a few dates in early July at the Lowry in Salford Quays).
Gary Waldhorn’s grinningly benign Narrator introduces a beguiling mixture of voices that are not always well matched in the ensemble numbers: Beverley Klein (taking time out from Fiddler on the Roof) as the Witch; Gillian Kirkpatrick as a vocally (and physically) mature Cinderella; Nicholas Garrett and Nic Greenshields as the rival princes writhing in their hilarious duet, “Agony”; Suzanne Toase as a voracious, dumpy Riding Hood; Peter Caulfield as a shock-headed Jack. Jack’s bossy mother is delightfully played (though shakily sung) by Anne Reid. Best of all, Clive Rowe and Anna Francolini as the Baker and his Wife give beautifully detailed accounts of their songs and their characters, the one a devoted man beset by tragedy, the other a frail and edgy mother whose adultery in the forest is no great surprise.
“No matter what you say, children won’t listen” is the conclusion as the music moves to simple utopianism similar to that in Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. A great production should leave you in shreds, or at least tears, and this one doesn’t. But Holmes and his band do leave you in no doubt as to the score’s brilliance, especially in its recurring motifs and mix of wit and sentiment.