It is undeniable that the late great Stephen Sondheim is one of the best musical composers and lyricists the world has ever seen. Only recently leaving us in November last year, seeing Watch This, Australia’s first and only Sondheim repertory company perform Into the Woods at the beautiful heritage-listed Meat Market building in Melbourne felt very poignant.
In Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim and book writer James Lapine bring to life all the perfect, happy, light-hearted, and kind fairytale characters that you grew up with, but dishes real challenges and trauma into their lives, providing depth and making them no longer the two-dimensional fairytale beings that we know them as. They’re real people with problems, like you and I – minus the giants, of course.
The performance space is very large and unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, Watch This cleverly trickling their performance area from the stage onto the floor near the audience, its set decorated with various trees, bushes, and flowers to give the feeling of really being ‘in the woods’ alongside our favourite fairytale characters as their stories unfold.
The 12-strong cast feel like more, as some take on multiple roles. John O’May, Jackie Rees, and Jacqui Hoy are great in their respective roles. Cherine Peck is wonderful as the Witch, who briefly may seem like any other storybook witch, but as her story unravels, she’s also a disgruntled neighbour and just an ordinary mother who wants to do right by her child. Peck is completely commanding whenever she is on-stage and her performance of “The Last Midnight” is phenomenal, if not a bit scary.
James Millar is excellent as the Baker, a loving husband who just wants to do right by his stubborn and sassy wife, played by the talented Fiona Choi, but instead deals with a lot of deeply rooted marital problems. You can’t help but feel sorry for his character and feel tempted to break the fourth wall to give him a hug (but don’t).
Ava Madon as Cinderella is very humble, kind, and is surprisingly very relatable with just wanting a ball but not a prince. Whenever she would speak to the birds or the trees, you never doubt that Madon’s Cinderella is unable to do so, as her portrayal is so sincere and believable. Her performance never wavers, if anything, Madon is even more captivating when Cinderella starts to be disenchanted with her life and past decisions.
Lily Baulderstone will make you crack a smile with her portrayal of a young, feisty, and frustratingly gluttonous Little Red Riding Hood, who you would not want to mess with. Not to mention, her wolf cloak is to die for.
However, the stand our performances of this production are Caitlin Spears and Raphael Wong’s portrayals as both Cinderella’s step siblings, and as Rapunzel and her Prince. It was never difficult to identify which characters they were playing, and their quick transitions to and from different characters was always done in a humorous way that continuously delighted the audience. Spears in particular has super impressive vocals that I wouldn’t be surprised if she really were a princess.
Nick Simpson-Deeks as both the Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince is cheeky, charming, flamboyant, and hilariously entertaining, especially when leaping in and out of scenes as the Prince and getting surprisingly a lot of air while doing so, enhancing the fun vibes of the production. His duet with Raphael Wong in “Agony” is quite possibly the funniest part of the show.
Finally, Anthony Craig is fantastic as both Jack and the royal Steward, the way he convincingly switches from one character to another with different accents and drastic changes in his body language, even having a wardrobe change on stage, is both impressive and flawless in his execution. We all know the story of Jack and the Beanstalk and that he steals from the giants to have a better life, even though he’s a thief, you cannot help but love Craig’s Jack, as he appears sensitive, thoughtful, extremely likable, and is devoted to both his mother that he rarely obeys and his pet cow. Even if you do find yourself snickering when he’s made to drag around a puppet cow in circles on the performance floor.
Watch This’ Into the Woods is a fun must-see experience for both families and theatre fans alike. Into the Woods has always been one of Sondheim’s best musicals, as it is easy enough for children to follow, with many happily doing so during the Watch This performance that I attended. But there are also deeper and serious life lessons and story arcs within the musical that adults will appreciate, clearly evident in songs, “No One is Alone” and “Children Will Listen”. This production is a love letter to Sondheim’s legacy, told with heart and care by Watch This, reminding us of just how lucky we all have been to have lived at the same time as Stephen Sondheim.
Watch This’ season of Into the Woods, directed by Sonya Surares and Melanie Hillman, is on now at the Meat Market – Flat Floor Pavilion in North Melbourne until the 23rd of January 2022.
For more information on Into the Woods, ticketing and for future Watch This productions, visit: https://www.watchthis.net.au
Photography by Jodie Hutchinson.