Another beguiling trip into the woods

Cast members of the touring production of the clever Into the Woods, a KickstArt musical first staged in Durban in 2016. The show is now in Johannesburg until April 21.

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Stage: Into the Woods – Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino, Johannesburg
REVIEW BY BILLY SUTER
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HAVING first enjoyed a successful Durban season in April 2016, going on to clean up at that year’s Durban Theatre Awards, KickstArt’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s clever Into the Woods is now enjoying new life with a national tour featuring both original and new cast members.

The complex, colourful musical was revived by the Durban theatre company, in partnership with Pieter Toerien, for a Cape Town season earlier this year, and that show has now moved to the Pieter Toerien Theatre at Montecasino, where it had its official opening on Sunday and runs until April 21.

Anyone appreciating good musicals well done, should book now for a show which, when I reviewed KickstArt’s original production, for The Mercury in 2016, I summarised as “truly dazzling… wise, warm, wacky and witty.  Into the Woods is a triumph!”

Seeing it again at the weekend, the musical remains, for me, second only to Sweeney Todd, another touring KickstArt production of a Sondheim musical, as my favourite work from the Durban theatre company, which has produced a pile of golden stage moments since it was established 19 years ago, most recently a glorious Camelot.

Graeme Wicks as Jack (of beanstalk fame), Jessica Sole as The Baker’s Wife and Earl Gregory as The Baker. A scene from KickstArt’s Into the Woods.

There has been some tweaking of props and sets, some technical reworkings, since Into the Woods first wowed Durban, but the show remains a gem, lent added glitter by some exemplary new additions to the cast.

It is essentially the story of a baker (an earnest and sweet-voiced Earl Gregory, of Joseph and Puss in Boots) and his wife (Jessica Sole, Princess Fiona in KickstArt’s Shrek the Musical) who, to break a spell that prevents them from having a child, go on a quest into the deep, dark woods.

Their mission is to collect specific items demanded by a conniving witch (a standout Kate Normington who, thankfully, gets to wear a much better, sexier, costume that the odd dress worn by Lisa Bobbert in the Durban production).

There is much more to Into the Woods than just that quest, however. Finding the items for the witch is no easy task, especially when the baker and his wife cross paths with various troubled fairytale characters. Things get more complicated when they get tangled in overlappings of their respective stories, the second act of the musical taking a much, much darker turn.

During the course of the adventure and its consequences, all characters get to learn lessons about, among other things, relationships, family, pulling together for a greater good, and the fact that happy-ever-afterings are not always what they are cracked up to be.

Witty wordplay, both hilarious and moving, has always been the trademark of Sondheim musicals and he is perhaps at his best with Into the Woods. His lyrics and score, set to a book by James Lapine, prove a great challenge for any cast as there is very little spoken dialogue, most of the story and out-loud-thinking being in song.

It says much, therefore, for the talent of musical director Drew Bakker, and the expertise, flair and loving care of Steven Stead and his tight and often colourful direction, that the cast of this production is allowed to not only take wing but soar.

Kate Normington, Earl Gregory and Jessica Sole in Into the Woods.

Well choreographed by Durban’s Leigh Meyer, the entire ensemble is superb, but the charismatic Normington, who is vocally very strong and lends both campness and poignancy to her witch, deserves special mention. Ditto for a luminous Sole as the baker’s wife, a role she first played in Durban.

Hearty applause, too, for Zak Hendrikz as both a lecherous wolf and a camp and conceited prince who, by his own admission, is more charming than sincere. Hendrikz is hilarious and in fine voice too.

Also contributing in no small way to the musical’s many pleasures are original cast member Graeme Wicks, as a dimwit Jack (of beanstalk fame); Haylea Heyns, in operatic mode as a Cinderella who reconsiders her lot in life; and an amusing Candice van Litsenborgh as Jack’s loud, no-nonsense mother.

Of note, too, are Megan Rigby as a feisty and fun Red Ridinghood; a smouldering Nathan Kruger as an intentionally hammy prince; L J Nielson as a spirited Rapunzel; and Michael Richard as the show’s narrator and a mysterious man who pops up here and there during the story.

We also get the animated Ashleigh Harvey and Sarah Richard as Cinderella’s sisters, who go through some physical hardships in this musical, and a quirky Dianne Simpson as both Cinderella’s stepmum and also Red Ridinghood’s granny. Schoeman Smit plays the prince’s steward.

Also important to the show are puppeteers Naret Loots and Brandon Moulder, both of whom the audience is expected to render invisible as they breathe life into birds, a cow and other surprises.

On a detailed, striking revolving set by Greg King, depicting a gnarled forest with trees rooted in old, giant books; and with atmospheric lighting in the very capable hands of Tina le Roux, Into the Woods is a treat of note. Booking is at Computicket.

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PS: Good to report that KickstArt plans another Sondheim production later in the year – this time the first South African production of Company, to be directed by Stead and designed by King. Yay! (More about it and other KickstArt plans in my story under ‘Theatre’ at sosuterbill.com)
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