Musicals and Opera
11.30 (run ends 27th Aug, not 14th, 21st)
This is a musical I know and love – complex, subtle, and many-layered: I found this production somewhat like the curate’s egg – good in parts.
In act one the fairy tales of Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Rapunzel are wound around the story of the baker and his wife who long for a child, but discover that they are under a curse from the witch who lives next door. To break this curse, they have to collect four things ‘before the third midnight from now’… The second act investigates what happens after the first act’s “happy ever after” endings, and explores further the idea of going ‘into the woods’ to move from childhood to adulthood, and the consequences of this.
The students at the Scottish Conservatoire are talented, and made a good stab at the show, but overall I was slightly disappointed – partly due, no doubt, to knowing both the original Broadway productions and the more recent film version, which clearly demonstrated the need for excellent diction and superb [and extensive] vocal range in all the roles.
In Sondheim, the words are as important as the music: the complex, subtle lyrics need to be heard clearly, and not rushed or swallowed if their full import is to be gathered. Many of the songs were well-treated in this respect – generally the slower tempo ballads or torch songs: the quicker or more reflective pieces were less well served, making me wonder whether the singers were fully aware of what they were singing. Maybe as the run progresses they will mature into a deeper understanding of the many-layered emotions driving their characters.
The Witch was brilliant dramatically, and very moving in her later numbers (especially The Last Midnight and Children should listen), but I found it almost impossible to hear the words in Greens, which spoils the set-up of the plot. Red Riding Hood was beautifully sassy and bouncy, but rather swallowed the punchlines in her reflective I know things now: her Wolf wasn’t particularly menacing or lascivious – though I loved the use of shadow play for the ‘Wolf eats Red’ scene. Rapunzel sang beautifully, and lost her hair impressively, but didn’t have a lot else to do, while the two princes were suitably shallow, self-absorbed and in love with the idea of loving the unattainable. Cinderella’s step-mother and -sisters were flouncy and unpleasant, though not always audible. Cinderella herself (Philippa Cassar) sang well, though her swithering on the steps of the palace again suffered from word-swallowing, so that her dilemma and its resolution weren’t very clear. She matured as the piece progressed and her dismissal of ‘her’ prince was more credible.
The outstanding performances for me were Jack (Peter Vint), the Baker (Andrew MacNaughton), and the Baker’s Wife (Maxine Aquilina). All had excellent voices, acted well, and engaged my sympathy. Jack sang Giants in the Sky superbly, and matured from heedless boy to caring and thoughtful young man. The Baker and his Wife are the linchpins of the show: they had excellent voices and convincingly conveyed their complex emotions. I loved their duet – You’re different in the woods – and the Wife’s brief fling with one of the princes – her Everything’s different in the woods giving a glimpse of the vibrant person she could be when not burdened with care.
The ensemble was generally good and the sound when all the large cast were on stage was impressive. The staging was very simple, and effective in facilitating the rapid transition of scenes, while the portrayal of the Giant’s Wife was excellently done.
So why did I find it unsatisfying? Partly, I feel, because the questions Sondheim raises in this musical are profound, and the cast didn’t fully convince me that they really felt the emotions they were singing about: partly because of my own dissatisfaction with the final message of show – “no-one is alone”: it’s a very heart-warming idea, but is it really true? Whenever anything went wrong with the stories, everyone was keen to vindicate and excuse themselves and to cast the blame on others – very true to life there! – but the ending was a little too nice: even though many people were killed by the giant’s wife, they still managed conveniently to resurrect for the closing number, and though a corpse-strewn stage might be too much like Hamlet, it might have been more realistic! But then, musicals aren’t about realism, are they? Or are they?
The audience didn’t even half fill Assembly Hall but they seemed to appreciate the show. I don’t know quite why it didn’t gel for me: maybe I’m growing up, and leaving the woods…?