Into the Woods        Théâtre du Châtelet 5 April 2014

Into The Woods is one of the most difficult pieces in the Sondheim repertoire. It requires a lot from every major character, and there are many of them. It requires imagination and skill to ensure the fairy tale magic sparkles and shines and a creative team working at full pelt to pull it off.

Now playing at the Théâtre du Châtelet is the Parisian premiere of this great work, with stage direction from Lee Blakeley, choreography from Lorena Randi, musical direction from David Charles Abell (with Sean Alderking as Chef de chant), design from Alex Eales, Costumes from Mark Bouman, Lighting by Oliver Fenwick and the important marionette work (Milky White and sundry birds) overseen by Max Humphries. Most of their work is astonishingly good.

Abell commands the Orchestre De Chambre De Paris and it is truly wonderful to hear the orchestral sound they produce together in this marvellous, grand theatre. Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations are given full throttle with the result that Sondheim’s score floats, soars and shimmers through these particular Woods.

And such Woods! Eales’ design is sumptuous, from the homey, needle craft “Once Upon A Time” curtain, through the clever grave for Cinderella’s mother (she is seen laid out in a crypt underneath the tree, serenely spooky) and into the complex array of forest accoutrements, complete with many paths, long, tall trees that hurtle skyward, Rapunzel’s tower, broken tree stumps, old ruins, clearings, ridges, stairways, indeed everything that evokes the sense of fairy tale forests, and all on a constantly moving revolve, so the impression of the journey into the woods is continual.

It’s a clever move, too, to make the first Act clearly occur in bright, warm weather while the second occurs in much darker, colder times, the presence of snow adding to the more grim(m) atmosphere.

The costumes are quite beautiful and there are so many clever touches: Cinderella’s pitch-ruined ball gown and gloves; the matching but contrasting primary Lego colours given to the Princes making them look like toy soldiers; the glorious gowns and undergarments given to the horrible sisters; Jack’s unkempt Bavarian village imbecile lederhosen riff; the Baker’s buttoned up look which unbuttons as his journey progresses; Jack’s Mother’s attempt at fashion once wealth comes her way; the Witch’s fabulous old hag gear. There is much pure joy to be had in just the set and costumes, especially given Fenwick’s moody and evocative lighting, with the Abell charged score whirling through the Sondheimscape.

Director Blakeley successfully pursues the horror aspect of the piece: blood occurs frequently, in the form of red ribbons; the nauseating squelching sound when the Giant squashes people reverberates starkly; the Narrator’s body is hurled to the rocks with gay abandon; Jack’s mother’s murder is vicious rather than accidental; there is even a pecked-out Giant’s eyeball gleefully tossed in the air by Red Riding Hood.

Other directorial innovations are less successful. While it looks good to have a separate area from which he never joins the action, giving the Narrator his own home, space and existence, separate and distinct, means that when he does join the action he jars, does not quite fit in. Turning the “moment in the woods” for the Baker’s Wife into, apparently, a quick, passionless moment of cheap oral gratification for the Prince, while setting up two clear laughs for the Prince (one about zipping up his trousers), demeans the Baker’s Wife intolerably and undercuts her great tragedy, as well as rendering her terrific number neatly pointless. Playing Red Riding Hood as a stomping, chomping almost-autistic creature necessarily erases much of the warmth and comedy from the character; here, there is no contrast between her girly appearance and her capacity for wilful self-indulgence or the unleashing of her inner savage. Her outer savage is inexplicably in control, as is shown by the final moment of the production, when she lunges her hunting knife towards Cinderella’s throat – despite the fact they have just faced the Giant together and Cinderella has, effectively, agreed to look after her and Jack.

If you are the kind of person who reaps rewards from Bernstein’s recording of West Side Storyfeaturing Dame Kiri, Jose Carreras and other Opera world luminaries, then the casting here will afford you no shock. For the cast here could do most Operas proud. But when your familiarity with the score means you expect female bravura voices that can mix head and chest voice, can belt and float, can bring the house down with the sheer power of a nailed top note, the refined, beautifully produced and delivered vocal lines here can seem odd.

But they are not. They are simply different from that expected. Indeed, the biggest problem here, perhaps, is that the score is too well-sung, that some of the personality and joy has been excluded by the Opera style. But, actually, it is a small quibble, and although the individual singing might be wholly unexpected, the choral work is crisp, sublime and charged. There is much to be said for seeing this score in a different light, hearing it with a different sound, finding new ways to marvel at it. Once you accept you are not on Broadway or the West End, but in a proper Opera house, there is little not to like vocally.

The most triumphant performer is Louise Adler, whose Rapunzel is ravishing vocally (effortlessly sounding like a siren in the woods) but pained, trapped and full of fear and incomprehension. She is also hilarious and her fate is made especially tragic because of the sheer fun she brings to the part.

Like some sort of deranged Barbara Windsor, The Witch is a joyous creation, quite unique. Beverley Klein grabs the role with both hands and savours all of the excesses and extremes of the role. It’s a full throttle performance, from shrieking on her airborne broomstick to her obsession over Rapunzel or her determination to throw Jack to the Giant.

Pascal Charbonneau is a sprightly, desperately dim but anxious to please ginger Jack. He lost his way musically at the top of the show in one brief section and it seemed to throw him, so there was a tentativeness to Giants In The Sky which was odd, but his attack and commitment was exceptional. His voice is glorious and when he was on firm ground with the score, he nailed every note.

Damian Thantrey made an excellent Wolf, vigorous of voice and calculating in nature, quite Mozartian and his Prince was, well, charming. His work with David Curry as his brother was particularly good, both being more laid-back, wry and offhand than is usual. But it works.

As the Baker, Nicholas Garrett is the embodiment of diffidence. It’s obviously a clear decision to underplay the Baker in this way, and while there is a deal of lost humour and some lost heart along the way, in the end it is a convincing and believable turn, which shines a different light onto this most critical of roles. Garrett’s fine voice and handsome appearance help justify the approach, and in the moments when he nearly loses composure, you glimpse into the darker heart of the character.

Most of the other principals have been cast for their vocal prowess, and all succeed to varying levels in the dramatic stakes. Kimy McLaren makes a fine gutsy attempt for the elusive Cinderella, but it is not a natural role for her. The same goes for both Christine Buffle (Baker’s Wife) and Rebecca De Pont Davies (Jack’s mother). But Kate Combault is perfection as Cinderella’s dead mother, her haunting tones pitch-perfect.

This is an unusual version of Into The Woods, mainly because of the casting. But vocally it achieves new and different heights, thanks to the skilful musical direction, the inherent beauty of Sondheim’s score and truly wondrous sets, costumes and lighting.

Nice.

Four Stars

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Into the Woods (Théâtre du Châtelet)
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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.