Sunday, 29 August 2010

Sondheim in the Park

With this entry, I have absolutely no idea where to start. I had wanted to see a Sondheim show for over a year, ever since I stumbled across clips of Patti LuPone in the recent Broadway revival of “Gypsy”. Although Sondheim only wrote the lyrics for “Gypsy”, I was immediately transfixed. By this time, the London revival of “A Little Night Music” had closed, and there was no other Sondheim to be seen. Instead, I busied myself with acquiring as many cast recordings of Sondheim shows as possible. It didn’t take me long to realise that I loved Sondheim. The way the lyrics could be interpreted in so many different ways was the first thing I noticed. Even after several repeat listenings I kept hearing something new, which was the second thing I noticed. The third thing I noticed was that there seemed to be a point to absolutely every single lyric. It was almost as though Sondheim is to musicals what Shakespeare is to plays.

This year being the year of Sondheim’s 80th birthday, I realised that there would probably be a chance to see a Sondheim show. There seemed to be several one off concerts, and of course “Passion” at the Donmar, which is impossible to get tickets for. What I really wanted was to see one of his musicals in performance. My patience was rewarded when I found out that Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre was producing “Into the Woods” as their closing musical for the season. I had loved seeing “The Crucible” earlier in the year, so I immediately started pestering my Dad to book tickets. My patience (and indeed, my persistence) was rewarded, and the tickets were purchased.

There was still the worry, though, that the rain would prevent me from seeing my first Sondheim. Luckily, although there was a shower when we were standing in the queue, then another shower whilst we were eating the expensive yet incredibly tasty barbeque, the third and final shower, which started five minutes before the performance and only continued to the end of the prologue, was the last for the evening. I could hardly believe my luck, although it is a testament to the wonderful performance that I stopped thinking about the rain the moment that the last droplet had fallen.

On a humorous side note, the members of my nuclear family who I was accompanied by had given me the strangest looks and even laughed when I told them of my plans to bring a bin liner for my seat, in case it was wet, and a further one to cover my legs in case it rained. Funnily enough, they were begging me for half of my seat liner to cover their damp seats when we arrived. Due to being a quite nice, if opinionated, person, I decided to share. Regrettably, though, on future occasions they will have to provide their own.

“Into the Woods” was the first ever Sondheim show that I had listened to, after blindly grabbing the first CD I saw in Dress Circle with his name on. I loved it from the moment I listened to it. I think this cast recording was really what sparked my interest in Broadway as a whole, because after hearing Bernadette Peters’ voice my research around her, followed by all the shows she has been involved with, became furtive. Anyway, I pretty much know most of the songs by heart, so was really looking forward to finally hearing them performed live. Of course, I had previously heard “Agony” and “Children Will Listen” on the BBC Sondheim prom, the former of which was performed by Daniel Evans and the rather delectable Julian Ovenden, who was my second theatre love, after Gavin Creel. The latter, performed by Maria Friedman, moved me to tears, so I was hoping that Hannah Waddingham’s version would do the same. The real reason for mentioning the Sondheim prom was that another of the principals, Jenna Russell, plays the Baker’s Wife, and I had fallen in love with her voice. I wished at that point that I had known about Sondheim in 2007 when I was thirteen, because then I would have gone to see “Sunday in the Park with George”.

Now, I have made an executive decision to actually start writing about last night’s show. Directed by Timothy Sheader, who is also the artistic director of the venue, the production used the concept of the narrator being a young boy who imagines the story and plays it out with toys, whilst it takes place around him. The ending was also slightly different to how it has been in other productions, but I don’t want to spoil it for people who haven’t yet seen the show. This change to the ending tied the show up well, and made for an ending with much more of a lasting impact than when an adult narrator is used. The other directorial decisions around staging were inspired, for designer Soutra Gilmour had created intricate scaffolding that would never fit into a traditional promescium theatre. This made some of the short appearances by characters, where they sometimes only sing one line before leaving, much more fluid. Then there was the natural backdrop of trees that really did make you feel as though the characters were going into the woods. Overall, the staging was probably the most exciting that I have ever seen, since there was always a lot to look at and new things happening, which added to the magic of the piece.

The costume design was brilliant, except for certain aspects, namely Cinderella’s dreadlocks, which were questionable. The giant, voiced by Judi Dench, was a magnificently unconventional creation which really was in the sky. I can’t really imagine going to a matinee and seeing the show when it was light, because the lighting design was extremely effective, sometimes leaving certain parts of the stage completely dark, despite some of the actors still being on the stage in these parts, to allow us to focus on other things.

Having listened to the cast recording so many times, I wondered how I was going to react to hearing completely different voices. Luckily, Gareth Valentine’s arrangement seemed to be quite different, and sounded entirely different in the open air. It was a bit of a shock to the system to hear British accents instead of American at first, but by the end I had concluded that I quite preferred it with British accents, because the “character” voices seemed to be more prominent and effective than they do with an American dialect.

“Into the Woods” has a book by one of Sondheim’s most frequent collaborators, James Lapine. The libretto is one of the cleverest that I have ever encountered in a musical, and provided plenty of jokes, some of which were very obvious, but also plenty that required thinking about to be fully absorbed.

Like most musicals, “Into the Woods” has two acts. The first act concentrates on the retelling of several classic fairytales. The stories are intertwined by the Baker and his wife, a fictional couple who are trying to have a child, so head into the woods to find a red cap, a cow as white as milk, a golden slipper and hair as yellow as corn. Act One is fun and humorous, but Act Two is where the story becomes darker. Themes of adultery, control, sacrifice and self doubt and awareness lead us into a poignant ending, which I will admit resulted in me crying, twice. The first time was at “No More”, and the second time during “Children Will Listen”. The reason for the tears is because the woods are not just trees; they are, in fact, a metaphor for life.

As fantastic as the production was, it would not have succeeded without an amazing cast. Luckily, what I have decided is one of my favourite casts ever, were on hand. I had previously seen Hannah Waddingham perform a solo cabaret at a small theatre, so was aware of her vocal prowess, but it was only after seeing her playing the Witch that I realised the true extent of her acting talent. Mark Hadfield’s portrayal of the Baker was the first thing that moved me to tears. His presence was enough to make us feel as though it was his and his wife’s story, which of course it is. He was the character I most felt for at the end of it all. Helen Dallimore portrayed a wonderful, if slightly vocally weak Cinderella, and it was amusing to see how she has not found time to update her resume to include “Too Close to the Sun”. As “Into the Woods” is, like “Les Misérables”, essentially an ensemble piece built around one central story, it is difficult to stand out, but my personal favourite performance was Jenna Russell as the Baker’s Wife, who seemed to inhabit her character perfectly and steal every scene she was in. Another stand out was Beverly Rudd’s Little Red Riding Hood. Initially, I found the overall interpretation of this role awkward, but once I got into it and I saw how her character fit into the whole story, I realised how talented she was, even if the way she was playing her was a little obvious.

There was nearly a “hail” moment (torrential rain whist watching Macbeth at the Globe, May 2010) during my favourite song from the musical, “Giants in the Sky”, when just as the song drew to a close a helicopter zoomed overhead, which would have made for an awesome finish. The unique surroundings, particularly the rustle of the trees, went a long way in convincing me that this is one of the best productions that I have ever seen.

For once, a moment that I had waited for and anticipated for such a long time did not disappoint me. I can now say “Into the Woods” is one of my favourite musicals, and that I would rush to any future production, which would hopefully explore another, completely different way of staging this wonderfully unique piece. Now, I am just hopeful that the rumoured Chichester Sweeney Todd production starring Michael Ball, and the mentioned revival of Follies at the Haymarket directed by Trevor Nunn will come off next year.


  1. Love Sondhim.
    Don;t think Helen Dallimore with include 'Too Close To The Sun' it was a complete flop!

  2. I know....I just thought it was amusing that it was "conveniently" not included!