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Friday, 3 September 2010

Sondheim's Into the Woods at Regents Park Open Air Theatre

This year marks Stephen Sondheim’s 80th Birthday. Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre are celebrating with their tremendous production of a Sondheim favourite, Into the Woods. I have seen this musical once before at St Paul’s Girls School and was impressed with it then, so was excited to see it again.

Into the Woods, with music and lyrics by Sondheim is based on a book by James Lapine. The story intertwines the plots of several Brothers Grimm fairy tales and follows them further to explore the consequences of the characters' wishes and quests. The main characters are taken from the stories of Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and Cinderella, tied together by a more original story involving a baker and his wife and their quest to begin a family, most likely taken from the original story of Rapunzel. It also includes references to several other well-known tales. The first half introduces us to all the characters and we accompany them as they explore the woods. The second half feels like a completely different show, half the characters are killed off or transformed, and the general atmosphere is much more sinister. Various moral themes emerge, for example the importance of love over material things and the repercussions of unpleasant greed.

The cast is brilliant, and big, so I will only mention my favourites. Little Red Riding Hood comes top of my list: a delightful smiling girl played by Beverly Rudd she acts and sings charmingly. Ben Stott as Jack is also memorable. The two strutting self-absorbed princes (Simon Thomas and Michael Xavier) provide some comic entertainment with their hilarious duet, ‘Agony’. Not all the vocals are great though and I noticed some faltering particularly from the Baker, but on the whole this cast tackles the tricky Sondheim score well. A special mention also to the adorable cow, Milky White, scarily lifelike, despite only being a puppet, it reminded me of War Horse.

An outdoor theatre is, of course, the ideal setting for a musical about the woods. The large wooden structure is set up beautifully and used so creatively throughout the show. Hidden away around every corner are clever little gadgets, and swings, and even wires to lift the characters high into the sky. The creative team have thought of everything, and the multi-levelled platforms continue to surprise right until the end. The orchestra too, lurk behind the woody backdrop producing the most enchanting music to accompany the drama.

I love this production, but much prefer the first half to the second. The show starts at 8 pm and so by 9.30, when the interval comes, I was pretty exhausted. Also, be warned the seats are quite uncomfortable and it gets bloody freezing towards the end of the night, I luckily came prepared with my lovely checked Brora blanket to snuggle under. Visually absolutely stunning, musically brilliant, Into the Woods is always a great show to see, but Regents Park gives it a little bit extra that for me makes it a breathtakingly magical production to see.

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