Into the Woods.
Directed by Richard Block. Dramatic Productions in association with ANU School of Music. Gungahlin College Theatre, 22 Gozzard Street, Gungahlin. August 28-September 12. Bookings: stagecenta.com.
Dramatic Productions' artistic director Richard Block's ambition of presenting professional musical theatre in Canberra continues with his upcoming production of the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods.
"It is one of those shows that's really loved by performers because the music is just so deep and interesting to perform," Block says.
"The most appealing thing is how clever the writing is, weaving a whole lot of well-known characters together into a believable story."
Block says someone described Into the Woods to him as "a fairytale for adults – it explains some of the darker aspects of human nature and a number of people die in the show.
"The moral of the story, I believe, is that everything has consequences. The decisions that we make affect not only us but everyone around us."
In the show, a Baker (played by Grant Pegg) and his Wife (Veronica Thwaites-Brown) work to lift the curse of a Witch (Kelly Roberts) so they can have children and along the way encounter – and sometimes swindle, steal from or otherwise mistreat - such characters as Little Red Riding Hood (Sian Harrington), Jack (Pippin Carroll) and Cinderella (Philippa Murphy), all of whom have their own storylines, desires and frustrations. There's even a Giant, voiced by veteran theatre performer Toni Lamond.
Pegg – last seen in Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita - points out the Baker and his Wife aren't taken from fairytales but were invented as a device to link all the other characters. He says that what strikes him is everyone in the show is seeking something, but what they wish for does not turn out to be the thing they wanted. "All the characters in the show undergo a transformation and learn a lot in the process."
And, he says, all the characters in the show are important – it's a true ensemble piece. He says the music is "extremely difficult – very wordy and lyrically very challenging" but it's a show he's loved since he was a child and he's relishing the chance to take part in it.
Thwaites-Brown was cast as Cinderella in another company's production of Into the Woods four years ago that ended up being cancelled a few weeks into rehearsal. Now – "a bit older, a bit more matronly" – she's the Baker's Wife. "I find the role easier to identify with; it's a character I recognise in people I know," she says. The Wife does love her husband and wants a child but she is also tempted by the possibility of romance with a prince. "She doesn't really know what she wants." It's certainly a different part to her previous role, Maria in The Sound of Music. She thinks Into the Woods carries "a message against complacency and oversimplifying situations" – whether in fairytales or in real life.
Block says it was suggested more than once that they only do the show's first act, which "ends like a fairytale" - but Sondheim was very specific that the entire show, with the complications and consequences building up in the second half, be presented intact. For those who saw the recent film version starring Meryl Streep, the stage show will present songs and characters that, as often happens in musicals, were cut for the adaptation to the screen.
Peter Tregear, the head of the Australian National University's School of Music, was instrumental in boosting the production. Tregear helped Block hire the set, props and costumes from Victorian Opera's recent production of the show, adding to the production quality. "We've got approximately 30 costumes of really, really high quality, incredibly detailed and multilayered," Block says. The School of Music has also been a big help in the musical department.
Block wants to run his shows as professional, profit-sharing enterprises, paying participants a small fee and sharing any profits. While his previous production, The Last Five Years, a two-actor musical presented at Teatro Vivaldi, didn't make a profit, he says, "from an audience perspective it was very, very well received …When you decide to do this thing you're prepared to take the risk. I believe this is what people in productions desire, financial recognition."
Into the Woods is a much larger-scale undertaking that is, he says, the first major production to be presented at Gungahlin Theatre. "The stage is enormous. It doesn't have a pit, it doesn't have a fly tower, so the orchestra is on stage, but it's a really great community theatre."
Into the Woods will be followed later in the year by another Sondheim show, Company, presented by Everyman Theatre and Block is glad to see attention being paid locally to the "extraordinary" work of the Broadway veteran. "I think we'll be having more Sondheim in Canberra in the future."