Into the Woods (Harvest Rain)
QPAC, Concert Hall
October 1 – 4
Since its premiere on Broadway 30 years ago, “Into the Woods” has endured in many stage productions and, recently, a cinematic release, meaning that, although this Harvest Rain Theatre Company incantation is the first to have been produced professionally in Queensland, it is a story well known to many audience members.
Typically fairytale-like the story tells of how once upon a time, in a small village at the edge of the woods in a far off kingdom a collection of childhood fairy tale characters’ lives were interwoven together. It’s an ultimately complex and twisted tale that begins simply enough with The Baker (Eddie Perfect) and his wife (Rachael Beck) embarking on a journey into the woods when they discover they are cursed in being forever childless by a vengeful Witch (Rhonda Burchmore).
To break the spell the couple must collect the ingredients needed to restore the Witch’s beauty: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold, whereupon they come across Jack (of the Beanstalk), Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Cinderella. This makes it sweeping ear-worm Prologue theme all the more memorable as it introduces the carefree characters and their wishes without hint of what is yet to come.
In true Stephen Sondheim’s fashion, the show features a delicious orchestral score with some great songs including the pantomime-esque ‘Agony’ argument of two princes over who has it worst, and the soaringly-eerie witch’s’ anthem ‘Last Midnight’, focused more often on conversational lyrics rather than emotional belting. And the orchestra, silhouetted upstage as if in the woods, does an excellent job under conductor Jason Barry-Smith in bringing them to triumphant or lingering life.
“Into the Woods” is a show of contrasts beyond just its musical numbers. Act One is almost self-contained with characters seeing their wishes realised. However, sometimes desired achievement can be fraught with danger. And, in exploration of this, the second act is quite dark (and a little dragging). Sound and lighting capture this juxtaposition well, particularly in mark of the entrance of an angry giant to challenge the characters’ new-found fulfilment.
While the Concert Hall stage has been transformed into an effectively gnarled forest of delights and ultimate darkness, with such a large ensemble cast often on stage if not together than in relatively quick succession, the action often appears cramped, despite the precision of entrance and exit choreography. This also means that the show’s headliner stars don’t always have room to appropriately shine.
Rhonda Burchmore is powerfully diva-esque as she belts out ‘Last Midnight’ in a manner befitting a Bond theme, however, within withered witch mode she is faced with a linguistically challenging prologue introduction rap about greens that fails to do her voice justice. Rachel Beck is wholesome as ever as the Baker’s wife and Eddie Perfect’s performance is full of charm, and together their voices harmonise well. Tom Oliver is a spritely and engaging Jack, complete with his push-bike ‘cow’, while as his mother, Penny Farrow projects a solid stage presence and great diction.
Some of the most noteworthy performances, however, come courtesy of the comic talents of Kimberley Hodgson and Steve Hirst. Hodgson is full of sass as the not-easily-frightened Red Riding Hood, complete with her own rape whistle, making the role her own with a lively and engaging take. Like in the original Broadway production, there is a doubling of parts, with Hirst playing the lewd wolf and lustful Cinderella’s prince, both unable to control their appetites, with equally sensational performances, appreciated by generous audience applause.
Although its source material is one of the more family-friendly and audience-accessible works in the Sondheim library, this “Into the Woods” is no feel-good fairy tale for children, with acts of murder, mutilation, adultery and sexual harassment emerging as the initially innocent-enough story unfolds. Although it gets there is the end with its messages about accepting responsibility for one’s actions, Harvest Rain’s “Into the Woods” sometimes falls short of its potential. However, its humour is appealing and its sounds are strong, which is enough to keep most musical fans satisfied.
Photos c/o – Nick Morrissey