Review: NI Opera’s Into the Woods is a thrilling and moving night of entertainment
In the woods
Northern Ireland Opera
Lyric Theater, until February 27
If you go to the woods with the Northern Ireland Opera before February 27, you are guaranteed a thrilling, moving and entertaining evening of musical theatre. For Stephen Sondheim’s 1986 work was given a truly marvelous reading by director Cameron Menzies at the Lyric Theatre.
The scene is transformed via Niall McKeever’s decor into a symbolic forest of woods, both sinister and inviting. Because that’s what Into the Woods is all about, the stuff of our fairy tales, good and bad.
It’s based on four of the best – Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel – woven around the story of the childless Baker and his wife.
Fairy tales, starting with Grimm, help us come to terms with life, love, loss and everything in between. Or as master lyricist Sondheim says in I Know Things Now – Little Red Riding Hood’s song about falling in love with the wolf (brilliantly sung by Samantha Giffard) – “Now I know/Fear not/Grandma has right, just be ready / Ain’t it nice to know a lot / And a little not.”
We start with our characters, a cast of very talented performers deployed around the set with imagination. They interpret the music quickly, the tempo is fast.
The score is typically Sondheim, so touches of Cole Porter, Bernstein, even Britten-ish, all beautifully played by the Opera NI orchestra. Allison Harding’s gorgeous witch, who transforms from an old crone into something of a Nadine Dorries and emotionally reveals her inability to let her daughter Rapunzel grow up, orchestrated the baker’s barren curse.
The characters are all on a real and metaphorical journey as the couple must locate important objects. Jack (an engaging Conor Quinn) and his terrific mother (Wendy Ferguson, in the beautiful Northern Irish voice) add comedy. Their cow too.
Menzies smartly decided to allow actors to play in their own accents. This makes the musical more accessible, and John Linehan (aka May McFettridge) even becomes the voice of the giant. The two princes – Peter Hannah and Rory McCollum – present beautiful silly rides.
Yet in the thicket of plot and characterization, Sondheim explores some very big moral questions. For example, how far will you go to get what you want?
Knives are produced at different times, the baker (the believable Alastair Brookshaw) overcomes his qualms by slashing Milky White and stealing the little girl’s red cape.
Before the interval, we reach bliss forever as Baker and his wife (the exceptional Sinéad O’Kelly) receive their baby.
What happens next? Good question – this is serious. There is a clear 20th century legacy as the characters are killed by the Giant or by random acts of violence. Sondheim’s Jewish-American heritage may also come into play. No One Is Alone, one of the greatest numbers, which comes when the scene is exhausted, draws hope from despair as we move beyond black and white judgments.
Cinderella (a moving young tale by Kelly Mathieson) and Little Red Riding Hood wonder if we should forgive the evil Giant, who is also a person.
Young Jack wants to avenge his mother’s death, but is dissuaded from it – two wrongs etc. It’s a beautiful song, summarizing the dilemmas of being human, of having to carry on when people leave you “halfway through the woods”. Because witches can be right and giants can be good. But you, she sings, or rather all of us, have to decide what really matters.
Not a bad message in the current chaos.