Once upon a twisted tale

Into The Woods (Beenleigh Theatre Group)

Crete Street Theatre

February 18 – 26

The late Stephen Sondheim’s works are everywhere at the moment, including a gender-swapped revival of his ground-breaking musical comedy “Company” currently enjoying rave reviews on Broadway. In Beenleigh, however, audiences are heading “Into The Woods” to enjoy one of the greatest musical theatre composer and lyricist’s most enduring and popular works. And from the outset of Beenleigh Theatre Group’s production of the Tony Award winning musical, it is clear that the woods is the place to be. Its epic opening number not only earworms its theme tune into audience hearts, but showcases some of Sondheim’s wittiness lyrics, especially as an immediately-commanding witch (Danika Saal) begins rapping about the virtues of vegetables.

The classic, fairy tale adventure mashup that is “Into The Woods” incorporates plots and characters of several Brothers Grimm stories into an original plot in which a Baker (William Boyd) and his wife (Genevieve Tree) are sent off on a magical quest by the mysterious neighbouring witch to collect various items in order to break a curse that has left them childless. The first act follows their journey as they embark upon the very specific search for a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold, which brings them across Little Red Riding Hood, (Emma Burridge), Jack of the beanstalk fame (Aidan Cobb) and others.

From the moment the story opens once upon a time to its ‘Prologue: Into the Woods’, in which all the protagonists chorus together to explain their motivations for a trip into the forest, music is at the forefront of the show’s success. Indeed, this first taste of the complex score of beautiful, expressive melodies and bold brassing alike, affirms that under the musical direction of conductor Julie Whiting, the band (hidden away at the back of the stage as if in woods themselves), is more than up for the challenge.

At the emotional centre of the action is the hopeless yet hopeful Baker and his Wife. Boyd and Tree have an easy chemistry that endears them to the audience and their ‘It Takes Two’ duet is elevated by some lovely harmonies. Meanwhile, Saal is glorious as the antagonistic evil witch who prompts their scavenger hunt-like journey into the woods so they can reverse a curse to have a child. While ‘Children Will Listen’ is gorgeous, her earlier anthemic Act Two song, ‘Last Midnight’ is passionate and exciting in its dynamism.

Chloe Smith is also in fine voice as Cinderella, who seems to only encounter kindness when it comes from her feathered friends. She has a beautiful vocal tone making her ‘No One is Alone’ one of the evening’s highlights. Christopher Morphett-Wheatley and Darcy Rhodes dynamically prance about in play off each other’s bravado energy as the two (and two-dimensional) princes (Cinderella’s Prince and Rapunzel’s Prince), especially in the pantomime-esque ‘Agony’. Their frolic around while attempting to one-up each other in argument over who has it worse receives an enthusiastic audience response. And in his double as the Wolf, Morphett-Wheatley is beguiling in his stalk of Little Red Riding Hood (Emma Burridge) in ‘Hello, Little Girl’.

Burridge makes for a formidable Little Red Riding Hood, livening things with her every appearance, not only through her animated perkiness but impressive vocals. Her voice is consistently crisp and strong, even when with a mouth full of bread (as if Sondheim’s lyrics are already a mouthful!). And, along with Darcy White ‘as’ his emotive cow Milky-White, Aidan Cobb, as young Jack, gives us some unexpected ‘aww’ moments.

Like the realisation of Milky-White, staging effectively accounts for horse and carriage type props and big story aspects, even giving some standout moments such as our glimpse into what is going on inside Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother’s house. While missed microphone cues and static sometimes distract from audience engagement, Perry Sanders and Chris Art’s sound design works with Tom Dodds’ lighting design to effectively mark Act Two’s entrance of an angry giant to threaten the kingdom and challenge characters’ until-then fulfilment.

“Into The Woods” is a big musical of many characters and it takes times to tell their stories and then share the moral to be derived from them. The result is a long running time; Act One is almost self-contained, but then there is more as Act Two flips the story as the central characters are forced to band together in attempt to defeat the Giant. To the company’s credit, this production does well to make the twisted tale’s story somewhat easy to follow, especially as it transforms from a comic misadventure to an exploration of the consequences of actions. Even though it may come with a moral, however, this is no feel-good fairy tale for children, with its darkly humourous consideration of popular cultural myths.

West Side spectacle

West Side Story (Opera Australia and GWB Entertainment)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

July 24 – August 22

With book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and choreography by Jerome Robbins, “West Side Story” is one of the most celebrated musicals of all time. And Opera Australia and GWB Entertainment’s production of the classic recreates its beautiful blend of all of these elements in a vibrant and textured take that balances the contrasts of its story of gangs and love.

The plot, which borrows heavily from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” is of the doomed love story of two characters who fall in love despite being from enemy houses. On the streets of 1950s Upper West Side New York these houses are the urban gangs of the Jets and their rivals, the new Puerto Rican immigrant Sharks. Former Jets member Tony (Nigel Huckle) meets and instantly falls in love with Maria (Sophie Salvesani), the young sister of the Sharks’ leader Bernardo (Temujin Tera). The two attempt to keep their love a secret, however, as the feuding gangs prepare for a rumble, their loyalties are tested with heartbreaking consequences.

The musical starts in a glorious fashion with the ‘Prologue’ opening dance number featuring the Jets’ dancing, which both sets the tone and arcs to the rumble that ends a lengthy Act One. Director/Choreographer Joey McKneely’s demanding routines remain true to the original style and are slick and spirited as, in the opening number, the gang members fly through the air as they enact athletic yet graceful ballet moves and long extensions, but also frenetic energy, like the fast-footed feats of the roughneck Pontipees in the barn-raising dance sequence of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”.

Dance represents an integral part of the storytelling to signpost the tension between characters and to express the excitement of budding romance, in contrast to later frustration and grief. And the choreographic storytelling is skilfully executed by the highly-talented ensemble. Every 1950s beatnik finger snap, flick of the wrist, sharp stomping foot and long leap is precise and evocative. The Sharks girls’ sizzle in a lively, Latin-inspired ‘America’ of swishing skirts and fiery flamenco foot-stomping, as they in-turn mock their current world and that from which they have come in trade of one island for another.

There is chorographic grace amongst the rapid moves of the show’s rich jazzy numbers, thanks to a score that is filled with moments of light and shade. Lyrical ballet moves convey romance and innocence, with Act Two’s ‘Somewhere’ serving as an alternative reality highlight with both Sharks and Jets gang members, costumed in all-white, entering a magical ballet sequence, “An American in Paris” style. Making full use of the stage in sensitive echo of the earlier, explosive ‘Dance at the Gym’ they use a circle configuration and contemporary stylings of light-hearted, carefree movement to morph from small groups to build to a larger harmonious one.

The whole show is very choreographed; not just the dance sequences, but how the dancers move across the stage, and how the staging changes. Several large set pieces recreate 1950s New York with its synonymous apartment fire escapes, seamlessly joining as necessary to create a Juliet balcony for Tony to scale.

Lighting is rich, awashing the stage with a lush blush to soften the lovers’ first meeting and darkening its violet in low key lighting foreshadow of what is to come as they fantasise about being together and married in ‘One Hand, One Heart’. Renate Schmitzer’s costume design emphasises the youth and innocence of Tony and Maria against the bold palettes of the different gangs, which see the passionate Puerto Ricans in vibrant reds and purple, and the angry Jets in more muted earth tones and denim.

There is a clear youthful energy to this “West Side Story”. Connor McMahon is a memorable Baby John, the youngest member of the Jets gang and Nathan Pavey displays an impressive stage presence as self-styled expert Snow Boy, both in dance and comic moments alike. Angelina Thomson is sensational as Maria’s feisty friend Anita, who is girlfriend of Bernardo. Not only is her dancing exciting, with her use of costume movement only adding to its fervour, but the physicality with which she enlivens the emotion of her angry tirade to Maria against Tony, ‘A Boy Like That’, is palpable.

Huckle brings an immediate softness to the idealistic Tony and his delivery of Act One’s romantic ‘Maria’, when Tony learns the name of the girl with whom he’s fallen in love, is beautifully operatic in match with the score. Salvesani also has a stunning voice. Her Maria is pure hearted and innocent, but also strong-minded, and her solid vocals see us treated to a powerful ‘I Have a Love’, assertion to Anita as to the power of the feeling.

While the book of “West Side Story” may not hold up as well as the score, the musical is still a beautiful meld of Broadway dance and opera. Leonard Bernstein’s legendary score dazzles in its blend of jazz, Latin and classical inspirations to create definitive musical theatre numbers. Even the upbeat ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’, allows the cast members in smaller roles to have a slapstick moment in the spotlight as they play-act in vaudeville style, interaction with the local beat cop who has no patience for the gangs’ conflict, courtesy of Stephen Sondheim’s playful lyrics. And under Isaac Hayward’s Musical Direction, the orchestra is dynamic in its delivery of Bernstein’s memorable score, resulting in well-deserved ovation at the show’s end.

“West Side Story” is a must-see musical event for both long-time fans and those new to the classic alike. It presents a faithful revival of the original work with spectacle, energy and vibrancy. Its rich score in both vivacious in its moments, but also lingering its emotional melodies while the rest of the world fades away. And while its star-crossed love story may end with sadness, the electrifying journey to its tragedy is one that Brisbane audiences are privileged to have the opportunity to experience.  

Photos c/o – Will Russell

In good Company

Company (Queensland Conservatorium)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

July 28 – August 4

“Company” begins with New Yorker Robert readying himself to spend his 35th birthday celebration in the company of his mostly married friends. The musical takes place in his head at the moment he’s about to unlock the door to his apartment for the surprise of his party as he mind is kaleidoscoped with memories of past conversations with his friends and previous dating experiences.

The 1970s concept musical, based on 11 one-act plays by George Furth tells its story through a series of vignettes (with birthday party scene resets often in-between) during which Bobby gets a glimpse into the reality behind his friends’ romances in realisation of the loneliness that his bachelorhood is masking behind his ‘drive a person crazy’ demeanour (as he is unflatteringly portrayed in song by three of his girlfriends).

Thde musical masterpiece about modern marriage and its ​discontents is the work of ground-breaking American composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim so it is a show that is all about music. Its polite soundtrack is full of eclectic songs, including classics like the fierce ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’, in replacement of any real plot. Revolutionary at the time as one of Broadway’s first non-linear musicals, it earned a record-setting 14 Tony nominations and won six Tony Awards, and, in the hands of Queensland Conservatorium cast and creatives, it is easy to appreciate why.

Brilliant orchestrations (Musical Director Heidi Loveland) ensure that the soundtrack’s easy-listening melodies and crafted refrains remain with you in hum after its experience. The ensemble’s titular opening number is not only accomplished, but establishes a compelling musical charm thanks to the strong vocals of members such as Jarrod Moore and Patrick Connolly. As the story’s protagonist, Carlo Boumouglbay’s (in a role shared with Jerrod Smith) initial vocals seem to be timidly hidden under the orchestral accompaniment, however, his Act One closing wish for someone to ‘Marry Me a Little’ is deeply emotional and his voice belts out an urgent and gripping rendition of Act Two’s ‘Being Alive’ long for intimacy and someone with whom to share his life.

This “Company” is a polished production, featuring a number of stand-out performances, particular from its ladies. Chenaya Aston is memorable as Robert’s naïve, self-described dumb, flight-attendant girlfriend, conveying the perfect use of pause and extended beat for comic effect. And Grace Royle brings a more relatable humour to the role of sweet but self-confessed square Jenny, who after loosening up while stoned with Bobby and her husband David (Lachlan Greenland) remains happy with her ‘marriage and kids’ life choices. However, as is often the case with “Company”, Kyra Thompson steals the show with her marriage-phobic portrayal of the neurotic Amy, whose ‘Getting Married Today’ tour-de-force is one of Sondheim’s most arduous songs. Not only is her frenetic delivery of the demanding patter song’s mile-a-minute manic meltdown lyrics magnificent in its list of panicked reasons why she is not getting married to Paul today as planned, but her facial expressions and body language in anticipatory overwhelm make her whole performance utterly hilarious. Indeed, under Jacqui Somerville’s direction, the show’s entire entertainment value is enhanced by considered pacing, including the prudent use of pauses.

Despite its age, “Company” is still a very funny show in songs like the ‘The Little Things You Do Together’, in which the oldest and most cynical of Robert’s friends, the multiple-divorcee Joanne (Hannah Bennett) sarcastically tells the audience about the things that make a marriage work, and also in its drama. Its second scene, for example, in which competitive couple Harry (Alex Watson) and Sarah (Julia Pendrith) strike an interesting balance between both over-the-top and passive aggressive, contains surprising physical comedy and clever verbal quips as they literally face-off against each other in culmination of their relentless niggling about each other’s weaknesses.


Notwithstanding its lack of a traditional narrative, Act One especially flies by. And while Act Two’s pace slows somewhat, it does open with the sensational number ‘Side By Side By Side’, followed by the up-tempo ‘What We Do With Out You?’ which, although out-of-place amongst the show’s other scenes, brings a bit of Bob Fossey type Broadway to the wider-than-usual Visy Theatre stage. With razzle-dazzle sensibility, the on-point chorus line choreography in its mid-number dance break is an absolute treat, especially given the rarity of its experience in such an intimate environment.

There’s no doubt that Sondheim is a genius, and “Company” is a testament to this. The score is stellar and the songs are at once witty and wonderfully beautiful. Their complex lyrics stand the test of time, meaning that although Sondheim wrote the music so early in his career, now nearly 50 years ago, it holds up well today, so that the show only needs the subtlest of updates (such as the appearance of mobile phones in a nightclub scene). And the attention to detail is another of this production’s merits. Costumes work well to establish the diversity of characters and lighting is effective in its perceived simplicity, such as when Robert is captured in multiple spotlights in his moment of ‘Being Alive’ realisation. The conceptual musical study of contemporary relationships may no longer be innovative, but is certainly still sophisticated and very enjoyable, especially when realised by a group of cast and creatives as good as this.

Once upon a twisted fairytale time

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.

phonda glamRhonda 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