Theatre in Wales

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Sheer Pleasure of a Masterly Musical

At RWCMD

Into the Woods- Richard Burton Company , Bute Theatre, Cardiff , December 11, 2015
At RWCMD by Into the Woods- Richard Burton Company James Lapine’s book blends four classic fairy tales with a story of his own making about a baker and his wife. There were originally more. The Three Little Pigs and Snow White were in the first conception alongside Rapunzel, Cinderella, Jack of the Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood. An early try-out of the musical in San Diego saw them whittled out. The final result has still a quintuple textural intricacy to it and among the Sondheim canon is one of his most popular works.

Sondheim has an essay on the show in the second volume of his mix of memoir, critical barbs and musical master class. He closes with a last paragraph “in our early discussions…I brashly predicted that if the piece worked, it would spawn innumerable productions for many years to come…it would appeal to schools and amateur theatres as well as professional ones.” It has certain advantages, he says. Unlike others it does not feature interracial gang violence, grand guignol murderous revenge or optical theories of light and colour. As for the success he writes “I predicted that “Into the Woods” could be a modest annuity for us, and I’m surprised to say I was right.”

It is a surprise to read as “Into the Woods” is difficult, extremely difficult, to pull off. For its UK premiere it had Julia Mackenzie and Imelda Staunton and a host of others to make it fly. A revival had Sheridan Smith. For this end-of-course production director Steven Dexter has applied a high degree of wisdom. There is lurking behind the show the shadow of Bruno Bettelheim and his predecessors. The potential is there for a director with a higher sense of vanity to apply a concept. The true gift, and wisdom, in direction is to make the thing where the actors can best flourish. Steven Dexter does this.

His first means is space. The Bute floor has been cleared of all but three rows of seats on two sides. The space for the performers is immense, not the Olivier but perhaps a thousand square feet. The second is design. The corridor link between atrium and the Bute Theatre has a display of eight sizable painted canvases, the work of second year design students, and incidentally worth a view in their own right this season. The design capability of the College could create anything. Since the feature of this particular company is the convergence of age and since the best feature of being young is physical energy the performance space is unimpeded apart from a line of stools-cum-supports. Long cloths are suspended from the ceiling; they include the entrance for the audience which creates a suitable magical and different-world feeling.

“Into the Woods” is performed with an energy that suits the musical tempo. Structurally it has scenes but they run into one another and there is a high degree of cross-over singing. Like other class musicals there is an imbalance between the two halves, not so strident as “Showboat” or “Sunday in the Park with George”. Lapine’s second half, the not-happy-ever-sequel to the more familiar if amended stories of the first act, is too long but then that is a small demerit in a score that offers multiple pleasures.

The first is wit. “Agony” is given a deliciousness of treatment by its two male singers. Second poignancy: the finale “Children Will Listen” is meltingly emotional. It is there in the Sondheim oeuvre alongside “Losing My Mind” and “Not While I’m Around” to refute the claims that the composer is all intellect. Third craft: like Frank Loesser Sondheim does triple rhyme with regularity. In “On the Steps of the Palace” he has Cinderella rhyme “blue”, “clue”, “shoe”, “do”, stew”, “goo”, “too” and “knew”. An eight-word rhyming scheme might be seen as ostentation but whatever else it comes from a life devoted to mastering one art form.

The essence of writing for performance is rhythm. Solo numbers contrast with full company chorus numbers. The yomping notes that are prelude to “Into the Woods” itself are among the best in the composer’s canon. The seven-strong band is unseen offstage. The orchestration includes some perky music for reeds, played with relish by Eliza French’s clarinet.

“Into the Woods” is a company musical, which has roles but not leads. The best moments are the full company’s twelve voices in harmony. Cardiff’s alumni are regulars across stage and screen and the voices on stage for “Into the Woods” are diverse. Welsh, Scots, English and across-the-Atlantic tones are all on show. In no order of any precedent or merit the company in 2015 is Ronan Radin, Tom Vincent, Lorna Dennehy, Sophie Pinsent, Luke Hereford, Carlyne Gibb, Melissa Bayern, Catlin McKee, Daniel Hartshead, Kyleigh Grim, Emily Carter and Emilia Stawicki. Presiding spirit Vivien Care also features, in the form of the voice for the unseen giant.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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