Stephen Sondheim’s musicals are never easy to put on. His music is difficult – it doesn’t often provide memorable showstopper numbers and can quickly go obviously wrong if not performed extremely well. However, one would have expected musical theatre students at postgraduate level to be able successfully tackle it. Unfortunately, this production of Into The Woods, put on by the MA Musical Theatre students from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, does not work. From the strange costume design to the lack of musicality in a lot of the singing, this production disappoints overall.
Into The Woods is an amalgamation of many fairy tales, from Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood to Jack and The Beanstalk and Rapunzel. It is both a parody and a subversion, a clever tale that weaves the famous characters together in a coherent but sprawling tale. Sondheim sets it to highly repetitive, deceptively simple music that makes little use of harmony but contains many strange and unexpected little notes. The complexity and bareness of it seems to be too much for the singers in this show – many notes are fluffed and a lot of the characters scream and cackle rather than sing. The singing is at its best when all the characters burst into song together, such as in the opening number. However, the first act just drags on, turning a wonderfully dark and cheeky tale a bit exhausting.
Much can be said about this show’s design, most of it not good. The vague oriental nature that colours a lot of the costumes – from the wicked stepmother and stepsisters wearing turbans to the princes looking like versions of Aladdin – clashes with Rapunzel’s long yellow dreadlocks and Little Red Riding Hood’s Alice in Wonderland-esque outfit. A lot of it seems dodgy in terms of cultural appropriation, and fails to add anything to the show – there is no justification for it. At least the production is diversely cast! The design redeems itself a bit through the set, a multipurpose construction made to look like a slightly ruined house that contains many latches, doors and stairs to be used for interesting entrances and exits. It would be well-suited to an open-air production, or perhaps the Olivier stage at the National Theatre, but it feels like too much crammed in the Assembly Hall, with the audience right up close, able to see all the workings and hear every footstep on the creaky boards. The Brechtian nature of the staging, with a prominent narrator and the machinery of theatre on show, sometimes works – other times, it takes away from the magic.
From the inaccuracy of the singing to the bizarre characterisation of some of the characters – an annoyingly babyish Little Red Riding Hood and Princes who aren’t over-the-top enough, for example – this production does nothing to charm.
Into The Woods is playing Assembly Hall until August 27.