Monday, February 21, 2022

Into The Woods – a magnificent production of Sondheim’s classic (NI Opera at Lyric Theatre until 27 February)

Threading the characters and stories of four well known Grimms’ Fairy Tales together, and creating a mission for a couple of cursed bakers who long for a child to intercept Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Jack (of beanstalk fame) and Cinderella, is a work of imaginative genius by composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and book writer James Lapine.

The opening Prologue of Into The Woods sets the scene, introduces the musical motifs that will pervade the rest of the show, and proves that the cast can get their tongues and larynxes around complex lyrical parts.

Northern Ireland Opera’s production takes full advantage of the comedy in the script, augmenting the humour by using accents local to the cast members to the delight of audiences. The first natural accent you’ll notice is the Wendy Ferguson (Jack’s mother) pronouncing ‘cow’. You can’t not smile! The cast confidently follow the story in and out of the woods, and to everyone’s satisfaction the interval brings about a pleasing resolution.

Go home at half time and you’d have witnessed a great feel-good show. Come back after the break and you’ll soon realise that Sondheim left a loose thread that will quickly unravel as a flat-footed giant forces four of the remaining characters to accept the consequences of their actions and band together to find a new, and less perfect, way out of their crisis.

Sean Kearns’ warm narration together with Allison Harding’s conniving yet protective witch (particularly in the intricacy of the first act before she transforms) lead the audience through every twist and turn. Conor Quinn (playing Jack) makes a very assured professional debut in this show.

Samantha Giffard’s Little Red Riding Hood is hyperactive and hungry. Along with the stylised movements of Cinderella’s sisters Florinda (Jolene O’Hara) and Lucinda (Brigid Shine), Giffard’s novel physicality is retained throughout the production in a way that outshines the other cast members’ management of their tics and gestures.

It was good to see that NI Opera were able to audition and hire actors with Northern Ireland connections (many still based here) for the 18-strong cast. Was it a deliberate creative decision to cast mostly men of shorter stature and taller women into the lead roles? Whether planned or unplanned discrimination, the casting choices rather brilliantly upset the commonly assumed male authority and flips the power balance to match the script and lyrics where women lead the thinking and problem solving.

Niall McKeever’s set is magnificent. Filling the height, width and depth of the Lyric’s stage, the suspended wooden spiral could be mistaken for a science fiction portal into another dimension. Reminiscent of something a National Theatre budget could build, with very few light fittings visible, it felt like I was staring into a different world rather than looking at a theatre’s stage. Along with the built-in steps – it wouldn’t be an NI Opera February musical production without a very high step count! – the set creates lots of distinct areas in which the different fairy story families can be parked, while the highest and deepest stage allows the production’s mastery of light and darkness to magic characters in and out of the action.

A fifteen-strong band under the baton of Peter Mitchel power through Sondheim’s score and the reinforced PA once again hanging from the Lyric Theatre’s roof makes a huge difference to the quality of sound in that unforgiving auditorium. The toe and heel props in Careful My Toe are beautifully over the top. Milky Cow is also well engineered.

Director Cameron Menzies has successfully pulled a lot of different creative strands together. The second act drags a bit due to the burden of dialogue and less music to keep the pace brisk. But it doesn’t spoil the overall effect.

Thinking back over the last few years of musical theatre offerings from NI Opera – The Threepenny Opera, Sweeney Todd, and Kiss Me KateInto The Woods is by far the strongest and most satisfying.

I missed press night due to a mild visit of the ’Rona. But it was a delight yesterday to sit in the middle of a Sunday afternoon matinee surrounded by young children and families who were transfixed by the action, the live music, the singing, the costumes and the sense of storytelling.

As well as being more commercial due to their longer runs, NI Opera’s less-operatic-more-musical-theatre shows have often been described as crossover productions to make opera more accessible and convince new audiences to try out a more conventional opera performance later in the year. Hopefully it pays off this year with Verdi’s La Traviata in the Grand Opera House in September.

One of Into The Woods’ final songs – No One is Alone – is powerful in its own right. But as a politics blogger, sitting in the Sunday afternoon matinee knowing that local MLA Christopher Stalford had passed away, some of the song’s lyrics took on an extra resonance:

“Sometimes people leave you / Halfway through the wood”

Into The Woods finishes its run in the Lyric Theatre on Sunday 27 February.

Photo credits: Steffan Hill and Philip Magowan

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