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Into the Woods review – the spectacle in Sondheim and Lapine's musical comes at a price

A new revival of the hit musical opens at Theatre Royal Bath

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
The Into the Woods cast
© Marc Brenner

The journey to the stage has already been fraught for Terry Gilliam and Leah Hausman's production of Stephen Sondheim's Into The Woods. Covid delays and theatre journeys from London's Old Vic to Bath mean the piece has a lot riding on it if a rumoured West End residency is to take flight.

It's difficult to judge exactly which way it's going to fall, as while the production is impeccably cast, beautifully designed, and with a couple of moments of sheer wonderment and dazzle, its staging is also overtly busy at times and lacking an emotional core. This is a work that by the end leaves its audience emotionally shattered. It's currently visually sensational as one would expect from that visual master Gilliam while remaining stand-off-ish in tone.

Some of this may be due to flaws in the 1987 show by Sondheim and co-writer James Lapine. The first half takes us on a quest journey, where the barren Baker and his wife explore the woods to collect Red Riding Hood's red cape, Jack's cow Milky White, Rapunzel's corn-white hair and Cinderella's slipper and then in the second half shows us that life continues even after happy ever after. The production is at its purest in the first act when the imagery pops; flowers dropping from the ceiling, Red Riding Hood and Grandma resembling the final imagery from Reservoir Dogs as they are sliced out of the wolf's stomach. It's fun and imaginative and Jon Bausor's picture-book fairytale design is stunningly rendered on the Theatre Royal Bath's stage. It may be the biggest production ever to take place here and you can feel the design values in every facet.

Alex Young and Faith Prendergast
© Marc Brenner

As it gets darker in the second act though, it loses something. There are still images to leave the audience agape; the giant wife's appearance renders a spontaneous round of applause, but the emotional connection between the characters and the audience is lacking. "No One is Alone" feels strangely inert and "Last Midnight", even though delivered powerfully by Nicola Hughes, never tugs at the heartstrings the way it should. It's almost like being bombarded with spectacle has come at the price of its heart.

This blame can't be placed on the cast. In a Grinning Man reunion of sorts (and isn't it already time for a revival) Julian Bleach as the mystery man and Audrey Brisson as Cinderella are distinctive performers who give the parts verve, Bleach shuffling around like the angel of death, Brisson tumbling like a pierrot who then finds simplicity in a new found family unit. Hughes sings wonderfully as the Witch, though perhaps never discovers the pathos as the mother who realises that setting her daughter free comes with its own complexities.

The work's beating heart though is Alex Young and Rhashan Stone as the couple desperate for a child and willing to do anything to conceive. While Stone may not have the vocal chops that the rest of this crack team of musical theatre vets have, he brings warm everyman energy to him, a decent man who finds his morals tested, while Young is all breathy bewilderment when she finds herself coiled against a Prince in the woods, literally living out someone else's story. There is strength in depth casting with Gillian Bevan as Jack's Mum and Samuel Holmes as the Steward also bringing clarity and depth to supporting roles.

Sondheim's lyrics sometimes struggle to fully be heard in the space, whether that's mic or technical voice issues or something in between is hard to decipher. It's a good production, one that can rise above the controversy originally placed upon it, but one I suspect will be overshadowed by the smash hit iteration currently taking residence on the other side of the Atlantic.