If the opera world were the drug scene, Victorian Opera’s Into The Woods could be deemed a gateway drug. As a humourous musical based loosely on familiar fairytale characters, it is accessible to audiences equipped with at least a primary school literature knowledge. But the singing in this performance far exceeds anything you’d see at your local primary school’s annual production; on stage are trained Opera singers, stooping down to our level to demonstrate that well trained voices are made for more than just sopranos.
Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods follows four simultaneous narratives, that of the Jack of Beanstalk fame; a Baker and his wife; Little Red Riding Hood; and Cinderella. Each are embarking on a mission into the mysterious woods, where they cross paths and help each other in their respective journeys. Of most interest to the audience is the Baker’s quest: he and his wife need to collect a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold, or else remain barren.
By the end of the first act, you’d be forgiven for thinking that was it. With all conflicts resolved, all reprises sung, and all characters given an amusing epilogue, you could have easily left the theatre satisfied. But that’s when the proverbial shit hits the fan. Giants appear, leading players are crushed, and the story morphs from a frolicking adventure to a farce about survival. It’s a clever twist, one that has surely reduced as many children to tears as it has given irreverent punters something to laugh about.
While there are weaknesses to Into the Woods’ inconsistent narrative, the Victorian Opera cast ensure the play remains constantly engaging. On the night I attended, the follow spot operator had a few poor moments, as did the guy in charge of switching between microphones. But otherwise, it was easy to get lost in the woods alongside the ensemble cast.
Watching David Harris (Miss Saigon, Wicked, Legally Blonde) as the Baker, with his heavy Scottish accent and sheepish demeanour, is like watching a carbon copy of Ewan McGregor. Throughout the musical, you feel for the nervous yet determined Baker as he overcomes obstacle after obstacle to salvage something out of nothing. He is only upstaged by Matthew McFarlane, an unequivocal centre of attention whenever he appears. The audience adores McFarlane, first as a sly wolf (one more suited to the Rocky Horror Picture Show) and then later as a flamboyant and ambitious prince. The only times McFarlane comes even close to being upstaged are in his scenes opposed to University of Melbourne graduate Jeremy Kleeman (Rapunzel’s Prince). Their powerful duels – and duets alike – are favourites with the crowd.
Which brings us to the singing, which – as you would expect – is the standout feature. Into The Woods’ soundtrack won’t be to everybody’s liking; it consists of about five songs, repeated over and over again, with a few ballads chucked in on the side. But the company manage to get the most out of the score, their collective vocal dexterity giving new life to even the most repetitive tune.
Accompanying them is a stellar group of musicians, who could be considered a character in their own right. With faultless timing, the percussion section multitask by providing sound effects whenever the plot demands it. Just as dynamic is the set, which gives the small stage the appearance of vastness through a few layers of moving trees.
Into The Woods finished running on 26 July. For information on Victorian Opera’s 2014 season, visit http://www.victorianopera.com.au/