Following on from the success of last year’s Sunday in the Park with George, Victorian Opera have embraced the musical once again, this time tackling Into the Woods as part two of what we are teasingly promised will be a Sondheim trilogy.

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1986 musical intertwining of a host of familiar tales from Grimm and Perrault, and in particular an exploration of what comes after the “happily ever after”, is one of their most intricate, and therefore ironically most directorially prescriptive, of musical theatre constructions. That means that on paper, a creative team don’t have much wiggle room to give it an individual stamp (though Richard Jones proved otherwise in his brilliant staging of the original London production). Stuart Maunder isn’t as daring as that with his efficient version at Arts Centre Melbourne, but he demonstrates a deft hand with the essential storytelling and finds a fair few moments to offer a laugh or a bit of business outside of the tightly controlled script. Maunder’s vision (unlike Little Red Riding Hood) rarely strays from the path set by the original Broadway production (a slick-looking concoction with a lot of shouting and where most of the jokes are laid on with a trowel) but he’s a smart musicals man and knows a thing or two about how to play a text. Melbournians are fortunate that he is also blessed with a fine cast who sing and act up a storm and which includes at least a couple of revelatory performances.

Photos by Jeff Busby

Adam Gardnir’s set is crude but effective comprising a series of moving tree branches occasionally, but perhaps not often enough, suggesting eerie bone structures. It tends to wobble, and although Into the Woods could be effectively mounted using paper and string, it looks a bit on the cheap side. It’s well caught by Philip Lethlean’s fairly obvious lighting design. Harriet Oxley’s costumes are in-your-face primary colour affairs that nevertheless serve their function. Some, like the wolf’s Regency dandy-cum-lounge lizard outfit work well; others, like poor old Grannie’s enveloping nightcap or the witches second act utterly unglamorous ‘glamorous’ dress fall flat.

Musically Victorian Opera are on solid ground. Benjamin Northey provides a spacious, detailed reading of the score, enjoying every opportunity provided by the delicious chamber orchestrations (uncredited but I’m assuming Jonathan Tunick). His orchestral and operatic experience sees Northey taking a more flexible approach to tempi than is often the case in musical theatre and it pays dividends. The 13 players from Orchestra Victoria are first rate. Jim Atkins’ sound design makes sure that every word is clear, but the amplification seems greater than might have been necessary and you often lose a sense of where an actor is in the stage picture, making it hard for the eye to follow the ear.

There isn’t a significant weak link in the cast, though a couple of voices could afford to be a bit less musical theatre and there’s room for some extra acting nuance here and there. In a fine ensemble show, two performances in particular stand out for potentially redefining their roles: Queenie van de Zandt, who makes one of the most richly compelling of witches, and Rowan Witt, who brings a depth of detail to Jack beyond any performance I’ve seen to date. Van de Zandt manages to find space amidst the torrent of lyrics to play with the text with enormous subtlety. Again and again she elicits our sympathy or turns a line around in new and interesting ways. Her singing is excellent (Stay With Me was a tear-jerker) and her performance is beautifully grounded in truth. Witt is a talent to watch. His performance as Jack is terrifically crafted, ensuring that he’s not just funny, he’s believable too. It’s rare to come across a young singer who can find so much detail in a role without ever pulling focus. His natural sounding voice is appealing as well – Giants in the Sky was outstanding.

In the other main roles Lucy Maunder stands out as an excellent Cinderella. The character gets a bit lost early on, but as her experience develops, Maunder finds more and more opportunity to appeal to our hearts. The voice couldn’t be bettered with a superb On the Steps of the Palace and a radiant No One Is Alone. David Harris is a sympathetic Baker, always understated and all the better for it. By the end he’s created a fully developed character of some depth. As his wife, in some ways the show’s plum role, Christina O’Neill sings well and gets all of the laughs, but her stage business often feels contrived (finely crafted though it is) making her come across as a little suface. Josie Lane’s Little Red Riding Hood does what it says on the can. It’s a well sung and nicely played performance, but she misses out on some of the moments where we get to see the frightened child beneath the scary brat.

Melissa Langton gives a delightfully playful performance as Jack’s mother. Vocally she’s spot on and dramatically she’s full of smart ways to bring out the genuine feelings of a slightly obvious character. Matthew McFarlane and Jeremy Kleeman are engagingly overblown and vain as Cinderella and Rapunzel’s Princes respectively. McFarlane makes the wolf suitably creepy, combining a Jack-the-Lad cheekiness with a hint of a child abuser supressing a stiffy (yuk). Kleeman’s nice-but-dim Royal turn is backed by a fine set of tonsils. MacFarlane, though, runs out of steam a bit at the top. John Diedrich makes a fine Narrator and an even better Mysterious Man though I didn’t feel the doubling added anything to our understanding. Among the rest of the cast Olivia Cranwell as a sweet-toned Rapunzel and Antoinette Halloran, Elise McCann and Angela Scundi as Cinderella’s obnoxious family were generally excellent.

Hopefully the design shortcomings won’t put you off – they didn’t stop me thoroughly enjoying this energetic production – and the whoops from the packed house suggested plenty of others loved it too. And fancy good old cerebral Sondheim going down with an audience as if it were a performance of Wicked! Musicals fans should have a ball, and Sondheim nuts should see it for Van de Zant and Witt at the very least.