Northern Ireland Opera’s terrific production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Sondheim, Into the Woods: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Northern Ireland Opera / Peter Mitchell (conductor). Lyric Theatre, Belfast, 9.2.2022. (RB)

Northern Ireland Opera’s Into the Woods (c) Steffan Hill

Director – Cameron Menzies
Movement director – Jennifer Rooney
Set & Costume designer – Niall McKeever
Lighting designer – Kevin Treacy
Sound Effects designer – Russell Goldsmith

The Baker – Alastair Brookshaw
The Witch – Allison Harding
Lucinda – Brigid Shine
Stepmother/Granny – Catherine Digges
Jack – Conor Quinn
The Steward – Harry Lambert
Florinda – Jolene O’Hara
Cinderella – Kelly Mathieson
Snow White – Maeve Byrne
Rapunzel/Cinderella’s Mother – Mary McCabe
Voice of the Giant – May McFettridge
Cinderella’s Father – Paddy Jenkins
Cinderella’s Prince/The Wolf – Peter Hannah
Rapunzel’s Prince – Rory McCollum
Sleeping Beauty – Ruby Campbell
Little Red Riding Hood – Samantha Giffard
Narrator/Mysterious Man – Sean Kearns
The Baker’s Wife – Sinead O’Kelly
Jack’s Mother – Wendy Ferguson

This production is a fitting tribute to the great Stephen Sondheim who died in November 2021. It follows Northern Ireland Opera’s successful production of Sweeney Todd in 2019 (review click here). Into the Woods is one of Sondheim’s more popular musicals and it was adapted for the big screen by Rob Marshall in 2014. The plot interweaves plots strands from a number of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales including Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk. The main narrative arc of the work revolves around a baker and his wife who are childless and looking to start a family.

Sondheim and James Lapine on whose book the musical is based do not shy away from the very dark elements in the original fairy stories such as Cinderella’s stepsisters cutting off bits of their feet to fit into the glass slipper or the Wolf being cut open to release Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother. The focus of the first act is wish fulfilment while in the second darker, Freudian elements come to the fore. The musical grapples with themes around the troubled and sometimes difficult relationships between parents and children and how parents can screw up their children reflecting Sondheim’s own tortured relationship with his parents. Given that the musical was written in the mid-1980s it has also been interpreted as an allegory of the HIV/AIDS crisis although Sondheim said this was not his explicit intention.

Niall McKeever’s set consisted of an imposing central staircase leading up to ringed canopy of spiralling tree trunks interlaced with ladders. This was a perfect fit with the dark fairy tale elements of the story while Kevin Treacy’s lighting effects helped to illuminate dramatic tableaux within the musical such as the witch’s performance of ‘Last Midnight’ in the second act. The costumes helped to convey fairly tale characters that might step out of a story book and I particularly liked the idea of the Wolf wearing a kilt. Puppets were used for Milky White the cow and Cinderella’s birds (the former on wheels and the latter on strings). The elements fused together perfectly to conjure up Sondheim’s magical but demented fairy tale world. Cameron Menzies very wisely allowed Sondheim’s superb dialogue to propel the story along and the production was both immensely clear and dramatically striking.

The cast did an excellent job breathing life into their respective characters. Sinead O’Kelly and Kelly Mathieson were the two standout performances of the evening in the roles of the baker’s wife and Cinderella and both sang beautifully. O’Kelly radiated warmth while at the same time imbuing her character with a sensible pragmatism while Mathieson’s Cinderella had a feistiness in the face of adversity which made her transformation into an empowered woman very believable. Samantha Giffard’s Red Riding Hood skipped around the stage with glee and there was a spikiness to her character.  Allison Harding brought dramatic depth to the role of the Witch and captured the moral ambivalence to her character and her performance of some of the set piece numbers was very fine. Mary McCabe gave a vocally accomplished performance of Rapunzel’s more operatic numbers and her transformation into a traumatised victim was dramatically convincing.

Sean Kearns radiated authority in the role of the Narrator and he brought gravitas to the role. Alastair Brookshaw’s Baker was very touching and affecting and his duet with Kearns, ‘No More’ was one of the highlights of the evening. Peter Hannah was suave in the role of the Wolf before later injecting a comic ambivalence into Cinderella’s Prince. Rory McCollum brought a Marvel superhero swagger to Rapunzel’s Prince and he combined well with Hannah in Sondheim’s duets. Conor Quinn captured the gormless Jack to perfection and his performance of ‘Giants in the Sky’ was very good. Last but not least, the grand dame of Christmas pantomime in Belfast, May McFettridge, gave a winning performance as the Voice of the Giant.

Peter Mitchell and his small band of instrumentalists did an excellent job with the Sondheim score: the balance of the voices was impeccable and they navigated their way seamlessly between its lighter and darker elements.  Occasionally, in some of the big set piece numbers, the diction was not as clear as it might be, but this is a minor quibble.

Overall, this was a terrific production fuelled by first rate acting from a cast firing on all cylinders and well supported by the instrumentalists.

Robert Beattie

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