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Review Round-up: Open Air Goes Into the Woods

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Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods is being given a unique outdoor performance this summer at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park. One of Sondheim’s most frequently revived musicals, the show is a reworking of Brothers Grimm fairy-tales including Cinderella, Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel. 

Being produced to celebrate Sondheim's 80th birthday, the show is funny, dark and immensely popular. This production of Into The Woods is directed by Timothy Sheader, the artistic director of the Open Air Theatre with musical direction of the unseen band by Gareth Valentine. The alfresco location in Regent's Park and fantastical set full of ladders and staircases, designed by Soutra Gilmour, give a wonderful backdrop for this story of a magical woodland.

Into The Woods opened on 16 August 2010 (previews from 6 August) and runs until 11 September. Did Sondheim's fairytale musical leave the critics happy "Ever After" or watching in "Agony"?

  • Heather Neill on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) - “Sondheim’s witty, sideways tribute to Grimm and Perrault might have been written to be presented here on a balmy August evening… Director Timothy Sheader and Musical Director Gareth Valentine have conjured a magical production which mixes playfulness with irony and just enough sentiment to bring a tear or two in the finale, 'Children Will Listen'. The ensemble numbers, especially 'Into the Woods' and 'Ever After', suggest that this is a company having a woodland ball. Beverly Rudd is a plump toughie in a red cloak who is nicely confused by the sexy post-Freudian Wolf played by Michael Xavier: 'I Know Things Now' she warbles, both delighted and scared. Xavier is equally expressive as a dim, philandering Prince with a tendency to skip. Jenna Russell invests the Baker’s Wife with strength and maternal longing and sings like a dream, while Hannah Waddingham, fresh from her triumph in A Little Night Music, statuesque and commanding when revealed as glamorous after all, is simply stunning as the Witch. She can belt out a song when she needs to, but she can also be subtle and craftily funny... This is one of many celebrations of the composer’s 80th birthday. It does him proud.”

  • Sarah Hemming in the Financial Times (four stars) - “Some shows at the Open Air Theatre struggle with the setting: the swaying trees, the chill breezes, the sudden squeaks and rustles. Not this one. Sondheim’s fairytale fantasy fits perfectly: darkness steals over the theatre, just as it does over the action, making the benign environs of Regent’s Park that little bit sinister. 'The wood is just trees, the trees are just wood,' chirrups Red Riding Hood, glancing nervously at the thickets around her. It’s the ideal setting for this sharp take (music and lyrics by Sondheim, book by James Lapine) on Grimm and on the symbolic role of the woods as a place of uncertainty, fear and temptation… Timothy Sheader’s production looks great. Soutra Gilmour’s costumes nod towards Tim Burton, and her ingenious set, a maze of raised wooden walkways and ladders, frames the action beautifully. It’s a design that suits the setting, but also matches the shape of the show, with its multiple, intersecting storylines and musical themes.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) - “Of the three shows with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, this has always been the most popular, and the most problematic. The stock charge is that a punchy first half is followed by a preachy second. Timothy Sheader's dazzling revival solves the difficulty in two ways: by exploiting the scariness of the park after dark, and by seeing the action through the fevered imagination of a boy narrator… Sheader's concept unifies the show and reminds us that fairytales are often a projection of childhood fears… For once, the show seems all of a piece; and the treatment of the woods as a place teeming with Bosch-like figures camouflages the fact that Sondheim's score, although well projected under Gareth Valentine's musical direction, is full of tantalising motifs that rarely develop into a satisfying song... A flawed musical has been intelligently reclaimed as a late-summer night's dream that suggests fantasy is the first refuge of the psychologically damaged.”

  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “The challenge posed by this zany, rather didactic work lies in reconciling its elements of darkness, humour, Freudian symbolism and existential poignancy. We may get angst and some moments of pathos, but Timothy Sheader’s interpretation, while stylish and good-looking, suffers from a mixture of stridency, undercooked comedy and patchy singing… At its heart it’s about moral self-discovery and overcoming loneliness. But it’s a heart that only starts to beat after a great deal of flat-footed exposition… A consistent strength is Soutra Gilmour’s design. It resembles a massive climbing frame – all stairways and narrow platforms – and exploits the nocturnal charms of the Regent’s Park setting, especially when the Giant (voiced by Judi Dench) judders into view… The production’s aesthetics invoke Vivienne Westwood, Russell Brand and Tim Burton. It’s a heady mix, indicative of both creative verve and a problematic lack of clarity.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Telegraph (three stars) – “It is an inspired idea to stage this show in the magical, sylvan surroundings of Regent’s Park, and designer Soutra Gilmour has come up with a marvellously rickety, adventure playground of a set, all ladders, stairs and elevated walkways, with Rapunzel discovered high up in a tree… But in the second half the musical falls apart. James Lapine’s book becomes an increasingly confused mess of plottage, and after a host of characters have been killed off, the big climactic anthem, assuring us that 'No One Is Alone' seems as dishonest as it is trite, offering the kind of schmaltzy Broadway uplift Sondheim usually scrupulously avoids. At three hours this often repetitive show would also benefit from cuts… For all its faults, the strength of the company, Sheader’s witty direction and, above all, the spectacularly-lit woodland location, ensure that this fairy-tale musical casts a pretty potent spell.”

    - Helena Rampley

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