Stephen Sond-heim’s Into The Woods is the latest in a string of successful musicals that have been produced recently on the stage of the Stratford Festival’s Avon Theatre. Running for a couple of years on Broadway after its premiere in 1987, this intellectually disturbing work has had a number of well-received revivals over the last two decades.
As even the most observant of Sondheim’s observers would expect, this great American composer’s take on the world of fairy tales offers a very skewed look at such childhood archetypes as Cinderella, Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood and Jack (of beanstalk fame).
As much as any other of their collaborations, Into The Woods shows the skill with which Sondheim and his longtime book-writer James Lapine have been able to illustrate potentially disturbing subject matter with highly sophisticated and challenging musical and lyrical ideas.
Luckily at Stratford, director Peter Hinton and designer Dany Lyne seem to have grasped the sweet bitterness of Sondheim’s world view, where music and words exist to help us comprehend the surrounding darkness.
As usual with a Lyne-designed show, we are treated to a visually stunning production that raises unsettling questions about theatrical reality and its effect on an audience’s imagination. The fact that I have been acquainted with Lyne and her work for a decade and a half still does not prepare me properly for the sense of surprise and delight that her sets and costumes invariably produce.
In this show, my favourite artifacts were the impressively priapic Wolf costume, the Cinderella Prince’s gorgeous night-time seduction outfit and the spectacular Rapunzel tower, where the imprisoned character has become her own jail – perhaps the ultimate fairy-tale truth.
With skill that by now almost counts as routine, musical director Berthold Carriere and his festival musicians provide the strongest support possible for the actors on stage. With such visual and musical strengths to lean on, director Hinton is able to comfortably manoeuvre his large cast of characters around Lyne’s set and to extract fine ensemble work from his performers. In this process he has been aided by particularly accomplished work from some of his leading actors.
This year, Stratford veteran Peter Donaldson is (to me at least) a surprisingly effective Horace Vandergelder in the current production of Hello Dolly playing on the Festival Theatre stage. His equally convincing performance here in the double roles of the Narrator and the Mysterious Man could qualify him for Stratford’s musical theatre performer of the year, if such an award actually existed.
Meanwhile Bruce Dow is successful in showing how the Baker has to take the necessary steps to end the unhappiness that has resulted from a domineering relationship. The scenes between him and Mary Ellen Mahoney playing his wife are the dramatic highlights of the evening. Also, the audience can almost taste the fun and delight that Thom Allison is getting from playing both the Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince.