Laura Riggall reviews a take on Stephen Sondheim’s fairytale musical mashup by the UCL Musical Theatre and Stage Crew societies
Once upon a time, I watched a collaborative production of Into the Woods by the UCL Musical Theatre and Stage Crew societies at the Shaw Theatre, and it was glorious. This adaptation, produced by Vojta Smekal and directed by Olivia Burgin, is based on Stephen Sondheim’s and James Lapine’s twisted re-imagining of Grimm’s fairytales, which explores various childhood tales tainted by violence, sexuality and death.
The softly lit venue provides a fitting atmosphere for the musical, as the sound of creatures fills the air. The misty stage is furnished with tall, menacing steel structures, over which nets and chains are draped. The orchestra is tucked away at the back, sectioned from the rest of the stage by coarse metal fencing. These simplistic but effective props make for an eerie forest-like backdrop, whilst also leaving some work to the imagination.
The opening number is a belter, as the protagonists explain their motivations for journeying into the woods. These include Little Red Riding Hood (Anthea Xydas), a pre-beanstalk Jack (Tom Lane), Cinderella (Sacha Brereton), Rapunzel (Amy Macpherson), and Sondheim’s and Lapine’s Baker (Will Strutt) and his wife (Livvy Perrett). Hard-working and loving, the Baker and his wife have been cursed with childlessness. To lift the curse, they must appease the ugly old witch who lives next door (April Stanhope).
Although each character enters the woods with gusto, they stray from their own paths and into one another’s as they delve deeper, resulting in unpredictable twists and a muddying of morals.
A memorable confrontation is that of Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf (Emanuele Frascadore). A passionate display ensues, as the Wolf performs the hilariously sensual number “Hello, Little Girl”, making clear his desire for her young flesh. Such moments inject great humour, offering respite from the dark undertones of the musical. Yet, despite such turbulent moments, Act I culminates in unexpected but pleasant happily-ever-afters.
However, another change in dynamic occurs in Act II: the once vocal creatures are now silent, the characters are dishevelled and fearful, and the dark sides of desire begin to manifest as happily-ever-afters crumble. The addition of hazard tape to the set emphasises this sombre shift. The choreography (Dale Sewell) also runs in parallel with these changes; characters intertwine, twisting and turning in a rigid and forced fashion, and claw at one another as though they are no longer human.
The shift, not only portrayed by the appearance of the characters, is also apparent in their actions; in a poignant scene, the Baker’s wife enjoys a passionate encounter with a young prince (Abel Law). By his own smouldering admission, the prince was “raised to be charming, not sincere”.
To further exacerbate the apocalyptic atmosphere, Act II sees (or rather imagines) a vengeful giantess (Juliette Gorb). Cleverly represented in a simplistic yet effective fashion, two large stage lights emulate this huge being, and bathe the audience in a red glow as the giantess emits a booming, sinister voice. The blinding light, although initially overwhelming, ultimately adds to the giantess’ menacing portrayal.
As the dystopia thrives, human sacrifices are made, and what morality once existed rapidly diminishes. Even the narrator (Samuel Hegedus) meets a grisly demise, and as the body count increases, the accompanying sound effects are wince-inducing. Yet, despite the farce nature of the whole affair, Into the Woods reminds us of our responsibilities and duty to choose right from wrong; there are many moments where quiet reflection on the loss of life occurs, and a final reprise surmises that we all must learn from the choices we’ve made.
The cast exhibit a great aptitude for the vocal demands, switching effortlessly between sustained or sharp notes, all whilst juggling unique characteristic demands. Some scenes, including the finale, also see the coming-together of all characters, their numbers emphasising the complexity of their relationships – even the generous stage seems a little too small during these moments. The orchestra also manoeuvre through the convoluted and disorderly melodies of Sondheim’s score with laudable skill.
Vigorously fun and witty, yet emotional and dark, taking a trip into the woods with both the UCL Musical Theatre Society and UCL Stage Crew Society is wholeheartedly recommended. It is clear that Into the Woods requires an incredibly layered performance, which was delivered wonderfully by a cast brimming with talent, executed by a stellar crew and production team, and elevated further by the tangled melodies of the equally gifted orchestra. Overall, this performance will leave you feeling like you’ve achieved your happily-ever-after.
Featured image credit: Haoyu Zhou
Other image credits: Danté K Photography