INTO The Woods go York musical theatre company NE as they present Stephen Sondheim’s wickedly witty musical at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, from April 25 to 29.
The New York composer and lyricist rooted his 1987 Broadway show in the Brothers Grimm stories, in a grown-up twist that cast a new light on such familiar fairy-tale frequenters as Cinderella, Jack of Beanstalk fame, Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood, but this is no time for pantomime.
Instead, with a book by James Lapine, the story is centred on the Baker and the Baker’s Wife, a childless couple seeking to lift the curse placed on them by a once-beautiful witch.
Venturing into the woods three days before the rise of a blue moon, they must search for the ingredients that will reverse the spell: a milk-white cow, hair as yellow as corn, a blood red cape and a slipper of gold. Here they will encounter the fairy-tale folk, each on a quest to fulfil a wish.
The tale will be narrated by NE director Steve Tearle, who also takes on a second role as “the Mysterious Man”. “We chose to do Into The Woods as a tribute to the late Stephen Sondheim. It’s a very different show, which I was lucky enough to see on Broadway in the 1990s, though I missed the star turn, Bernadette Peters, as she was on her day off!” he says.
“I loved it! It was so, so funny. High camp comedy really! I put it on the backburner to do, but a couple of years ago we applied for it – before Sondheim died in November 2021 – and we were meant to be doing it last year.
“We’re so happy we now are as it’s a fantastic musical comedy for all ages with its wonderfully inventive re-telling of some of the Brothers Grimm stories, where Sondheim was thinking, ‘let’s bring out the child in the adult’. Being a family-driven company, it fits in perfectly with our actors from six years old.”
Steve’s New York trip has influenced his production. “When thinking about the set design, I took inspiration from the original Broadway version,” he says. “I wanted the audience to feel like they were also inside the woods, so we’re using rainbow colours and various styles to bring the woods to life.
“Befitting such an epic musical, we have an amazing set design and fabulous costumes, designed by award-winning Ashington fashion designer Paul Shriek, which we’ve managed to buy second-hand for our show. The finesse to Adam Kirkwood’s lighting is phenomenal too.”
The cast plays its part in setting the scene. “We have more than 50 people in the show, and the ensemble really are the set, becoming the woods, so the woods are interactive. It’s a movable set that changes as the show moves through the three simultaneous stories that blend together,” says Steve.
“We’re making the set a lot more personable to the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, making it ‘fit’ the theatre and more experiential, so that everyone there will feel part of the woods.”
Steve’s show will be knocking down theatre’s ‘fourth wall’, the imaginary barrier between cast and audience, several times. “The Narrator has his own posse of children in the ensemble, and they work with him in these fabulous break-out moments, like when we stop the show when he loses the book or he freezes everybody because he’s in control of everything.
“That’s like pantomime, but it’s all done with more serious overtones as – spoiler alert! – the show does feature deaths, as well as blood pouring out of a slipper, a toe being cut off and a heel shaved off. We’ll use a sausage for the toe and ham for the heel!”.
Chris Hagyard and Perri Ann Barley lead the NE cast as the Baker and Baker’s Wife, while Pascha Turnbull casts a spell on the audience as the Witch whose curse is the cause of the culinary couple’s woes. Rebecca Jackson plays Cinderella with Sam Richardson as her Prince; Molly Surgenor and Missy Barnes share the role of Little Red Riding Hood; Juliette Brenot is Rapunzel, with Kristian Barley as her Prince.
Further principal roles go to Ryan Richardson as the Wolf; Jack Hambleton, aptly, as Jack; Melissa Boyd as Jack’s Mother; Effie Warboys as Sleeping Beauty and Elizabeth Farrell as Snow White Farrell. “Helen Greenley may be the smallest member of our NE team but she’s playing what you might say is the biggest role,” says Steve. “She’s the Giant’s wife, wearing these massive platforms.”
Steve is as proud of his cast as ever. “There are no professionals in the show; we do it for the love of theatre, and we just embrace people and what their capabilities are. We have cast members in the ensemble who have hearing difficulties and are partially sighted,” he says.
“I like to think we give opportunities that other companies wouldn’t give, and we love encouraging confidence among our young performers. We very much wanted to have them in the cast; some had never heard of Sondheim, but they definitely love him now!”
NE [once short for New Earswick, the company’s origins, but now denoting New & Exciting] present Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, April 25 to 29, 7.30pm and 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk