Okay, it was only a preview. And the cast are all students. Well, when I say students, I mean an incredibly talented ensemble of actors and musicians from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland which earlier this year was ranked third in the world for performing arts education. Not bad for what was once dubbed “The Best Small Country in the World”.
But watching Into The Woods, twenty years after appearing in what was then the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama’s 150th anniversary production of the same musical, two things became clear: my tear ducts are in perfect working order; and Imelda Staunton was bang on the money when she described Stephen Sondheim as “the Shakespeare of musical theatre”.
Thanks to the success of the 2014 movie directed by the Oscar-winning Rob Marshall and starring an array of Hollywood A-listers including Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt and, erm, James Corden (into each life some rain must fall), the plot is well known: a bunch of fairytale characters go into the proverbial in search of love and happiness, wealth and meaning, and, yes, “a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, a hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold”.
But only a handful survive to tell the tale. Or rather, write the tale. And what a magnificent tale Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine have written. And more, what a monumental challenge for director Michael Howell (RCS Head of Musical Theatre), musical directors James Harrison and Robert Wilkinson, and the fifty-strong cast, crew and band who, for the most part, rise to the occasion with aplomb.
Though it’s very much an ensemble piece, the casting of a small number of roles is key to the play’s success. And if the audition process goes awry or for whatever reason the performers don’t cut the mustard, then the fairytale can turn into a nightmare and crash to the ground like Jack’s infamous beanstalk. Thankfully, there are no such concerns here.
At the play’s heart are The Baker (played by Eu Jin Hwang, doubled with Andrew MacNaughton) and The Baker’s Wife (Loro Flannigan, doubled with Maxine Aquilina) who, to paraphrase Eric Morecombe, “play all the right notes in the right order” and are solely responsible for breaching my floodgates with their moving duet It Takes Two and their respective solos No More and Moments In The Woods.
Equally important are the roles of Jack (Osian Garmon, doubled with Peter Vint) and Little Red Riding Hood (Abigail Stephenson), both of whom capture the wide-eyed innocence and transition from childhood to adulthood to a tee, with Stephenson excelling and almost stealing the show with her comedic skills. And like all good pantos, the play’s success hinges on how bad, or rather how good, the baddy is which in the case of Caroline Lyell (doubled with Beatrice Owens) as The Witch is excellent. Her delivery of Last Midnight tremendous.
Sure, there were a few wobbly moments. Literally, in terms of heavy-footed actors stomping on the wooden set and exiting into the wings like a herd of wildebeest. Some of the sound and lighting cues require tweaking. And a couple of cast members succumbed to the twin evils of over-exuberance and nerves. But these are but minor wrinkles which will no doubt be ironed out over the coming days.
For this production, like life itself, is full of beautiful moments. But, as The Baker’s Wife sings after reflecting upon her fling with Cinderella’s Prince (Péter Horváth), “If life were only moments, then you’d never know you had one”. Thankfully, the moments unite into a collective whole which is high on energy, big of heart and bold in execution. So catch it before the Last Midnight of 27 August when in the words of The Witch “it will be boom squish!”