Into the Woods | Victorian OperaLeft – Josie Lane and Matthew McFarlane. Cover – the ensemble. Photos – Jeff Busby.

Once upon a time ....

Those magical, oft-spoken words are the first ones uttered at the start of Act One in this Sondheim revival and while it is clear that we are in for a fairy-tale with some very familiar characters, it soon becomes apparent that this is less Disney and more Brothers Grimm.

Into the Woods first premiered in 1986 with a book by James Lapine and music and lyrics by that musical mastermind Stephen Sondheim. To say that what they conceived is inventive and clever is an understatement. Into the Woods turns the familiar inside out and delivers a show that will have you laughing out loud one moment, before diving into the darker recesses of your mind the next.

References abound in this work and in this production. From the score to the storyline. You can play along and read/interpret as much or as little as you dare. Or you can sit back and just enjoy the craziness that is played out before you in this very accessible show. The audience has a choice. And choice is partly what Sondheim and Lapine so deliciously make their characters play with. 

The familiar storylines and characters range from Cinderella and her vile sisters, to Jack (and the Beanstalk), Little Red Ridinghood and the Wolf, and Rapunzel and her witch of a mother.

The stories may be familiar with most of the performances played out in large, pantomime style, but dark undertones are always lurking, with some moments having a violent and even gory effect (the ugly sisters having parts of their feet amputated to fit into the glass slipper, for example).

Act One ends as most of these fairytales should. Happily ever after. But Sondheim and Lapine are not content to leave things there, nice and neat. With Act Two they delve even deeper and ask what may have happened after...and so the fun continues.  

Victorian Opera has managed to stage a lovely production as part of their Sondheim trilogy (presented over three years). It says much that this very short season is almost sold out. 

Director Stuart Maunder has gathered a fine diverse cast from the worlds of opera and musical theatre and managed to stage it effectively. Technically, there were some opening night glitches, but these should hopefully be sorted. Adam Gardnir's set design works well, complimented by some impressive lighting (Philip Lethlean) and sound (Jim Atkins) designs. 

A large ensemble give strong performences, complimenting each other, and singing Sondheim's words and music adeptly and clearly. David Harris (the Baker), Josie Lane (Little Red Ridinghood), Lucy Maunder (Cinderella) and Rowan Witt (Jack) are just some of the talented ensemble. 

Personal favourites were Christina O'Neill (Baker's Wife), Matthew McFarlane (Wolf / Cinderella's Prince) – he also gets to quote the funniest line, Jeremy Kleeman (Rapunzel's Prince) and Melissa Langton (Jack's Mother). 

The night though, belonged to Queenie Van De Zandt as the Witch, with a delightfully nuanced performance. A highlight of the show!

Some of Sondheim's richest songs are featured in this show, including No One is Alone and Agony as well as the haunting line towards the end of the evening: Careful the things you say, Children will listen. Indeed!

Victorian Opera presents
Into the Woods
music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim | book by James Lapine

Director Stuart Maunder

Venue: Arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse
Dates: 19 – 26 July 2014
Tickets: $50 – $175
Bookings: 1300 182 183

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