“Into the woods!” sing the fairytale characters of Stephen Sondheim’s musical of the same name. Their words have never struck a truer note.
For a lively new production at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park in London, designer Soutra Gilmour has used the real trees surrounding the stage to create the most authentic woods ever likely to grace a staging of the 1987 musical.
Woven in among the branches are walkways on various levels, and there’s a nest-like home for Rapunzel right at the top too. As the sun drops and the stage lights begin to come up, the foliage glows with sylvan mystery from within.
Last year’s production of “Hello Dolly!” directed by Timothy Sheader deservedly won three Olivier Awards. It looks like Sheader’s latest effort could have a similar chance.
His sense of pacing, and how to switch from comedy to pathos, is faultless. The seamless interaction between acting, singing and Liam Steel’s slick choreography is handled well.
If the show itself were less uneven, it would be pure bliss. After a brilliant Act 1, in which fairytale characters such as Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and the Witch meet up to find a magical solution to their problems, Act 2 meanders repetitively. Even the recorded voice of Judi Dench as a booming female giant in a grumpy mood can’t give proceedings the oomph they need.
The cast is top drawer. Jenna Russell brings heart and warmth to the Baker’s Wife, a woman who wants a child. Hannah Waddingham is deliciously cragged and creepy as the Witch, and Beverly Rudd makes a hilariously stout Little Red Riding Hood.
Sondheim in uneven mode is still a better bet than most other composers at their best. With a cast and production this good, it’s a joy to go into his woods again. Rating: ***.
There are beautiful woods surrounding the country-house opera company at Glyndebourne. They don’t make it onto the stage, though, in the sixth and final production of this season, Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress.”
Instead, for the rural scenes, designer David Hockney creates hauntingly stylized flat trees that help evoke the look of the Hogarth prints upon which the plot of the opera is based. Down to the last detail of the costumes, everything looks as if it has been drawn and cross-hatched in ink.
Hockney designed the production (directed by John Cox) in 1975, and it has been hailed as a masterpiece on its tours around the globe ever since. (See Martin Gayford’s recent interview with Hockney on Bloomberg News.)
The staging recreates its magic in this revival too. Miah Persson manages to be both sweet and vocally courageous as the heroine Anne Trulove and Matthew Rose makes a seductively evil Nick Shadow.
Topi Lehtipuu is Tom Rakewell, the weak antihero who leaves his true love for the hollow excitements of city life. If his voice occasionally sounds strained, his acting is full of revealing details and lively gestures. Vladimir Jurowski conducts the bright neo-classical score with clarity and attention to detail. Rating: ***1/2.
‘Earthquakes in London’
Rupert Goold’s production of Lucy Prebble’s play “Enron” dazzled many U.K. critics last year. His production of another new work, “Earthquakes in London” by Mike Bartlett, is equally slick and energetic. Miriam Buether’s set, an orange table top that snakes through the Cottesloe Theatre, is eye-popping: The audience sits on bar stools or stands around it. It’s a shame the material is so lame.
Bartlett’s work deals with climate change. Rather than go for the real drama of the issue -- a fight between advocates and skeptics -- he takes the fact of anthropomorphic warming as given, and uses it to add apocalyptic background tension to a story of three dysfunctional sisters. One is a minister for the environment, one a depressed mother-to-be, and one a wild child into risky sex and drugs.
Along with their soap-opera-like exchanges, Bartlett writes some whimsical sci-fi scenes set in the future. It all adds up to a shambolic and sentimental piece of humbug, which doesn’t deserve the great cast it gets or Goold’s stylish directing. Rating: **.
“Into the Woods” is at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, through Sept. 11. Information: http://www.openairtheatre.org or +44-844-826-4242. “The Rake’s Progress” is in repertory at Glyndebourne until Aug. 29. See http://www.glyndebourne.com or call +44-1273-813813. “Earthquakes in London” is at the National Theatre through Sept. 22. Go to http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk or call +44-20-7452-3000.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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To contact the writer on the story: Warwick Thompson, in London, at email@example.com.