QMT cast makes it out of the Woods

Trite script finds fairytale ending through strong performances and technical execution

Rob Kempson as the Baker and Carly Heffernan as the Baker's Wife.
Rob Kempson as the Baker and Carly Heffernan as the Baker's Wife.
Milky-White (Anna Funk) and Jack (Adam Sproat).
Milky-White (Anna Funk) and Jack (Adam Sproat).
Supplied photo by Radey Barrack

A hopeful spectator might enter Into the Woods looking for something similar to Wicked, the musical based on Gregory Maguire’s cynical satire of The Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West.

Unfortunately, Queen’s Musical Theatre’s Into the Woods is a wasted opportunity to invert familiar stories and play with fairytale tropes. But although the musical’s script is disappointing, its excellent cast and technical execution redeem the production.

Into the Woods has the central message “Be careful what you wish for.” Fairy tale characters Jack, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, the Baker and the Baker’s Wife head into the titular woods to pursue their wishes, following their respective narratives to their well-known conclusions.

The apparent happily-ever-after conclusion to the first act seems rather Disneyfied, but the second act reveals a cast of dissatisfied, mistrustful characters, unpleasantly surprised by the fulfillment of theirwishes and longing to change their circumstances once again. The fanciful first act maintains several traditional fairytale tropes, including the omniscient narrator, the repetition of significant phrases and simplistic similes and imagery.

Refreshingly, the basic plots are faithful to the gory details of Grimm’s original storylines. The
naiveté of most of the characters is grating, however, as is the script’s frequent moralizing, with Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics and script writer James Lapine hammering home the perils of straying from the beaten path, the dangers of desire and the importance of forgiveness.

Although the second act is more engaging because of its departure from the traditional fairytale plots,
it too devolves into trite moralizing. The darker narrative in which the characters suffer the consequences of their actions becomes accidentally farcical; one after another, characters are quished
with an almost laughable crunch, and the most telling line of this act is the grasping: “This is terrible! We’ve seen three people die!”

To be fair, the production’s shortcomings lay in its source material, not its execution by Queen’s Musical Theatre. Luckilyfor the show, the entire cast is extremely talented: everyone— from the Baker’s Wife (Carly Heffernan) to the scene-stealing cow, Milky-White (Anna Funk)— buys wholeheartedly into the script’s campiness, resulting in masterful and fully committed acting. The seemingly boundless dramatic and vocal energy of the cast is simply exhausting to watch, and this energy makes the musical numbers irresistible, from choreographed ensemble pieces to over-the-top soliloquies sung straight at the audience.

Without a doubt, the play’s central character is the Witch. Kristin Rodgerson brings this role to life as a surprisingly multidimensional, vindictive crone with confused maternal instincts whose pronounced mannerisms and powerful voice carry the play. Rodgerson obviously relishes her every line and exaggerated sweeping gesture, helping to propel the show forward when the script fails its actors.

Andrew McWilliams, who plays both the Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince, appears to have sleaze down to a science. As the Prince, he effectively pulls off the role of a typically arrogant but charming slimeball, amplified to the nth degree. As the Wolf, however, McWilliams is much better, due both to his exquisite mask and his acting. This Wolf is both a sexual and a literal predator, and McWilliams manages to negotiate both aspects effectively and believably enough that the audience doesn’t really mind the cognitive dissonance created by the two depictions. Little Red, for her part, is a nice foil to the Wolf.

Sarah Angus alternates between sly coquettishness, exaggerated innocence and the false bravado
of a frightened child. Angus’ range and sensitivity in her portrayal of Little Red entirely compensate for her character’s trite lines, which seem to become more hackneyed as the musical continues.

On a purely visual level, the production is stunning: Mark Hockin’s set looks like a kind of industrial revolution-era Lost Boys’ hideout, with roped ladders connecting purple crags to a tall metal tower and everything draped in greenery. The costumes are also an impressively intricate visual treat and do a wonderful job of complementing the characters. The musical’s lighting is volatile and vivid, but nowhere more impressive than in the show’s opening, where a simulation of sunlight filtering through a stand of trees creates an atmospheric and woodsy mise-en-scène.

Overall, despite some cringeworthy lines and clumsy plot advancement, a combination of talented actors and a dedicated crew salvages Into the Woods, leading the audience on a journey through a musical interpretation of Grimm’s timeless tales.

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