It’s been a fine year for city musical theatre group What We Did Next, and their ambitious production of Steven Sondheim’s Into the Woods appeared to be be their biggest challenge to date – but boy did they rise to it.
The setting: The Black-E, a place normally frequented by this reviewer for the regular humiliation of a weekly Zumba class; but it has an increasingly nifty sideline in hosting must-see events, of which this is just the latest.
An apt choice for winter and the Christmas season that proves an interesting alternative to panto or family shows, Into the Woods is set in the land of Grimm’s fairy tales and what happens after happy ever after. It is dark, occasionally very funny, catchy as anything and quite addictively good. It’s a lengthy and rather complex work, but every minute is thoroughly enjoyable.
WWDN’s Into the Woods is bold, and full of personality. Director Kate Rugen certainly wasn’t afraid to put a twist on things, it was a move that paid off. Franki Burke as Red Riding Hood came with a cheeky, natural Scouse charm (this would have been horrible if done too deliberately), and Ellie Stephenson as Jack’s mother used a broad Lancashire accent. They are lovely touches, that without overdoing things gave this version a feel all its own.
In true Sondheim style, Into the Woods is a complicated musical with chunks of it comprising a number of multi-layered parts involving the majority of the cast. This must have been tricky but was handled deftly and always looked and sounded quite flawless. A live orchestra, hidden away on the balcony of the Black-E, did sterling work behind the scenes.
In a show full of embarrassingly impressive vocal performances (Sarah Brown as Cinderella and Elen Royles as the Baker’s wife among them), although it seems unfair to single out one person it was Jenny Martyn as the Witch who very nearly stole the show. Confident in a very lyric-heavy role that required a lot of physicality too, gorgeous and self-assured, she had a real musical theatre X factor.
The show’s signature lament, Agony, was played for big laughs by the two princes (Jak Malone and Jamie Barfield) and went down a storm whenever they appeared to ham it up.
From beginning to end the standard was impressively high. The only weak link was the sound occasionally suffered, and the mic’d up cast rather frequently dropped off the radar for seconds at a time. This was a shame, as the show was so absorbing it wasn’t nice to miss any of it.
There are some superb Christmas shows on in the city at the moment and many are well worth checking out; What We Did Next once again more than hold their own against the big boys, and In the Woods is really worth a look. There is one final performance tomorrow (Saturday, December 17).