ONCE UPON A TIME, WHICH COULD BE NOW…
What a marvel is this Sondheim / Lapine classic musical: playful and deep, absurd and earthy, mocking and wise. And what a piece of luck to plunge into its eventful world of fairytales entangled and askew, just when we are stumbling through the tangled woods of nightly news – wolves, lies, witches, giants, temptations, choices, alliances, guilts, remorses, forgivenesses, necessary wars and dark revenges. As I went in, checking the newsfeed, Chancellor Osborne was wandering off alone into the distant trees. By the interval Boris was Foreign Secretary. Drunk with storytelling and news the head reeled: all it needed was Michael Gove offering to sell Sarah Vine for five magic beans. Maybe I need more sleep.
Yet by the end of this wonderful piece there is more than story, a deep human complexity and moral reflection: “I’m not good, I’m not nice, I’m just right!” says the witch, and one longs for her to take command. Here are the great arias and choruses about bewilderment and choice (“Is it always or, is it never and..?”) and the witch’s warning that “Children will listen…be careful”. I had seen Into the Woods before, long years and sorrows ago: but now the depth of Sondheim’s understanding felt far stronger. Maybe in another few years it will change again.
Yet it’s all done with folk-tales, the stories we offer our children (albeit in the grimmer versions, and with adult admissions that happy-ever-after may involve disillusion, princes falling for other princesses, blinded Ugly Sisters still needing looking after by someone, and Rapunzel getting post-natal depression and blaming her mother.
Fiasco Theatre ’s off-Broadway production has a pared-down vigour which makes 2 hrs 40 fly past, so that you can hardly bear being separated from the joyful, energetic cast in the interval. Ben Steinfeld – who co-directs with Noah Brody as one of the Princes (and the wolf) himself plays the central role of the hardpressed Baker , and greets us informally at the start with the observation that Jessie Austrian as the Baker’s wife is visibly pregnant. Which since the core plot is about her not being so, we were asked to excuse. No problem there: her touching, gutsy performance and gently soaring voice are worth it on any terms. But all the actor-musicians , who wander to the side to pick up instruments from time to time, play seamlessly and joyfully together. Andy Grotelueschen is a particularly expressive and hilarious bearded cow (and a prince)’ a dumbly deadpan Patrick Mulryan is Simple Jack. There’s a marvellously tough, street-smart Red Riding Hood from Emily Young, and of course the Witch: Vanessa Reseland, possessively human over her daffy, ariel Rapunzel (Young again) . Reseland has superb attack and a shattering voice as she moves from burning , terrifying need to blame, pragmatic ferocity and the uselessness of remorse.
Framed by old piano keyboards and crazy montages of twisted instruments, Derek McLane’s set emphasises visually that it is Sondheim’s music which carries the emotions and truths: never a note wasted or a word lost, lyrics as tangled as undergrowth or soaring above the forest canopy. In our woods of war and change and quarrel, wolf-harried, mistrusting our magic beans and trembling at distant giants, it was both a magical escape and a lesson.
Box office 020 7378 1713 to 17 Sept