Last Updated on February 11, 2022
NI Opera presents a compelling and brilliant Into The Woods by Sondheim
A reinvention of the fairy stories of our childhood, Into The Woods has Red Riding Hood saved from the wolf’s stomach by a childless baker, Cinderella meeting her Prince Charming and ultimately finding out that ‘charming’ isn’t necessarily ‘nice’ and Rapunzel letting down her hair for the second prince, then being banished to the desert by her mother the witch. The princes and the wolf are kilted, Cinderella’s stepsisters are blinded by her loyal birds and spend much of the show walking around with white sticks and dark glasses and Milky Way, the cow, is a puppet on a bicycle. The central characters in this reworking of stories by the Brothers Grimm are The Witch played by Allison Harding, The Baker (Alistair Brookshaw) and His Wife (Sinead O’Kelly). The Narrator/mysterious man played by Sean Kearns turns out to be The Baker’s father. It’s a role that holds the storyline together and adds a poignancy to the tale, the Baker’s father abandoned his son as a child and is only uncovered in Act II of the musical. A whirlwind of a show, the Northern Ireland Opera staging brilliantly introduced quirky moments to bring relevance to a local audience without losing any of the original Sondheim script.
It turns out that the Witch has cursed the Baker’s family and, to lift that curse, she demands that they go ‘Into the Woods’ to find four items – a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, a hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold. Of course, that provides the mechanic for all the other fairy stories to come into play. In Cameron Menzies’ production, Jack (Conor Quinn) and his mother (Wendy Ferguson) are quintessentially Irish characters and the voice of the giant is played by May Mcfettridge, the longest-running Dame in Christmas Pantomime and regarded as one of the greatest character acts to emerge from Northern Ireland. Conor in his NI Opera debut was truly convincing as the reckless Giant Killer who steals the golden hen and harp in order to be able to buy back his beloved cow. Naive and bright-eyed, just a little slow of learning, his mammy clearly loved him dearly but despaired!
Of course, when Jack goes off to market to sell Milky Way, his beloved cow, it’s the Baker and his Wife who intercept the hapless youth and persuade him to part with the cow for 5 magic beans. Meanwhile Little Red Riding Hood (Samantha Giffard) skips her way with great determination into the woods to visit her grandma. Spotted first by The Wolf (Peter Hannah), who later takes on the role of Cinderella’s Prince, she and her granny are eaten alive – before being rescued by the Baker. And, as a reward, she gives the Baker the cloak as red as blood.
Cinderella (Kelly Mathieson) gets to go to the ‘Festival’ laid on by the Prince by visiting the tree she’s planted to honour her mother and being gifted her costume. As the story goes she’s pursued by the Prince and while she’s trying to run away from him, she swaps her remaining gold slipper for shoes from the Baker’s wife so she can run faster. Throughout the production, she’s credible and thoughtful. Articulate and determined, her singing is beautiful, a lilting Scottish soprano that seems entirely appropriate as a match for the (very) English but kilted Prince, while she brings to life a character that needs to grow through the show from a submissive romantic to an empowered young woman. Who wouldn’t empathise with her desire to find ‘something in-between after she’s escaped the misery of her life with her stepmother and stepsisters and experienced life at the Palace where she can’t do anything without a chaperone.
Mary McCabe as a whimsical Rapunzel has some of the best vocal moments. Something of an Ophelia like character, she turns on her mother in the end, pointing out that she needs to be allowed her freedom to experience the world. Her Prince (Rory McCollom), just like Prince Charming, turns out to be a philanderer and ultimately abandons her in pursuit of Snow White.
Into the Woods was first staged in the USA in 1987. With music and words by Sondheim and James Lapine, it is a show that works on many levels. Musically complex, the plot is rich and sophisticated, with darker elements of the human experience carefully intertwined so that it can be enjoyed by adults and children alike. The lyrics are at times cutting and black, at times insightful and this production was consistently well articulated so that every word of Sondheim’s score could be heard. The Northern Ireland Opera production runs at the Lyric, Belfast from 3 to 27 February. The 18 strong line-up, with many performers from Northern Ireland, is drawn from major West-End stars, stalwarts across Theatre, Musical Theatre and Opera genres.
The production is directed by NI Opera’s Artistic Director Cameron Menzies. His critically-acclaimed career spans the world of opera, theatre, musical theatre, film and cabaret. Cameron draws on his expansive skills and influences across the performing arts to create showstoppers spotlighting the best of Northern Irish music and creative talent. This is an endearing and charismatic production that truly brought to life Sondheim’s fabulous music and lyrics, with brilliant voices and credible acting. We love the staging from Enniskillen-born designer Niall McKeever, who provided a spectacular set and creative costumes – with a special mention to the superb Milky Way – the best transformation of a bicycle I’ve ever seen! The challenging and complex score is brilliantly performed under the musical direction of Peter Mitchell.
With the death of Stephen Sondheim in November 2021, this production is a fitting tribute to the man credited with transforming and modernising the American Musical, taking it to a new level of sophistication and musical depth.
Venue: The Lyric
Dates: 3 – 27 February 2022
Times: Evenings 7.30 pm and Matinees 2.30 pm
Prices: Previews: £15, £24, £31. Performances: £15, £27, £35
Booking Link: https://lyrictheatre.co.uk/whats-on/into-the-woods
Address: 55 Ridgeway St, Belfast BT9 5FB
Box office: 028 9038 1081