The machinations of getting any work to stage is an undertaking only those who have lived the experience truly understand. Let’s imagine then the privileges ‘Watch This’ might enjoy if they were a football team rather than a theatre company. Firstly of course we’d never stop hearing about them and secondly, given the obstacles of the current climate, they might even enjoy the supportive and superlative commentary reserved only to ball handlers in our sports-soaked media.

“Resilience, endurance and persistence” – a quote stolen from a sports article repurposed here for Australia’s extraordinary and only Sondheim repertory company because it perfectly mirrors not only the narrative of this musical but the difficulties the company has faced in producing it.

“Always in thrall most – To anything almost”

With the ramp up to stage running in tandem with the ramp up of community pestilence, things were not looking promising for live theatre and just as this production was about to meet its first audience, the very scourge they were on the cusp of defying hit the cast and threatened to jeopardise the opening. Then, with an incredible understudy in place to save initial performances, injury struck this indefatigable company forcing the cancellation of the following few shows.

‘Agony’ indeed and ‘Watch This’ could as much be the describer of this companies’ tenacity as it is their moniker.

So, with audience reviews preceding formal reviews – enormous congratulations to each and every person involved in finally getting Into the Woods to the ( Meat ) Market!

Nominated for 10 Tony Awards (including Best Original Score and Best Book) and 6 Olivier Awards in its debut seasons in New York and London, Into the Woods entwines well-known fairy tale characters and stories and is arguably Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's most famous and frequently revived collaboration.

As wonderful as this work is, it isn’t without its flaws. Layering a multitude of fairy tales upon each other is naturally great fun but, just like its characters, the newly stitched narrative, does occasionally stumble and lose its way, particularly in the second act. ‘The Woods’ are of course metaphoric for the travails of life, the place we go to realise aspiration or combat adversity. Sondheim’s music and lyrics are extraordinary works of precision intelligently exploring our joys and heartbreak with incredible wit. James Lapine’s book by contrast isn’t always on par lacking the lyricist’s subtlety and occasionally verging into clunky sanctimony. 

“This is ridiculous what am I doing here I’m in the wrong story”

With plenty of irreverence consciously acknowledging its own complexities, Into the Woods is relentless in self-commentary and for any production to truly succeed, we need reminding that we are watching an allegory because without this amplification, the show can easily career into panto territory and lose its whole point. For the most part, Watch This have succeeded in treading this fine line and brought to life a work that is thematically rich and emotionally loaded behind its veneer of simplicity and fun.

Having seen Watch This at work before, the calibre of performer and performance in this production was absolutely as expected and so incredibly high. Sondheim is always a tough sing and so massive kudos to the entire company for bringing this wonderful score to us with such commitment. As with any show, there are standouts; how much nicer would things have been over the past few years had Nick Simpson-Deeks been tasked with singing the latest Covid figures? Sadly no one thought to fill our lives with that daily joy and so hearing him here first as the Wolf and then as Cinderella’s Prince was a stunning consolation.

Having such a familiarity and love of a show, particularly its original recording, can unavoidably work against objectivity when hearing things interpreted differently. With the bar set in this way, anything above or below it naturally has impact. The measure of something genuinely thrilling is not just hearing wonderful lyrics sung by someone else but garnering new meaning from their delivery. Two performances in this production did just that and quite unforgettably. Anthony Craig made absolute sense of everything he did and said as Jack. This was such a thought through clever performance that visibly and originally captured the characters wonder and innocence with humour and energy.

“Till that happy day arrives how do you ignore?”

It is agonisingly difficult to unsee the destruction that ‘always just playing James Corden’ James Corden brought to the role of Baker in the screen version of Into the Woods that the world of Musical Theatre now owes James Millar eternal gratitude for his rescue. The Baker is, in so many ways, this narratives through line; the survivor and symbol of optimism for all who traverse trauma. Underplayed, thoughtful and thinking, every line and lyric considered and so truthfully delivered that when we get to the truly beautiful ‘No More,’ we absolutely understand. A simply outstanding, utterly moving, and memorable performance.

In 2019, Watch This was creatively enthralling in its staging of Sunday in the Park with George. What truly impressed in that production were the ways in which the work’s staging difficulties were so cleverly and simply solved. A production of Into the Woods is enormous in its opportunity to creatively tackle familiar characters and narratives and while this production was enormously enjoyable, the creative solutions and decisions here give the company’s effort in 2019 a slight edge.

Into the Woods is all about commitment to quest and Watch This have miraculously mirrored the theme. This company is wonderful and what it has achieved during the reign of a global pandemic is so astonishing that no review or opinion has the capacity or indeed the right to diminish what they have accomplished.

Event details

Watch This presents
Into the Woods
by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine

Directors Sonya Suares and Melanie Hillman

Venue: Flat Floor Pavilion | Meat Market, North Melbourne VIC
Dates: 15 – 23 Jan 2022
Bookings: www.watchthis.net.au

 

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