WARNING: The view of a Sondheim aficionado follows.
When it comes to this musical, I am notoriously hard to please. It was the first Sondheim show I ever saw, in the original London production, with Julia Mckenzie as the Witch, Ian Bartholomew as the Baker and perhaps above all Imelda Staunton as the Baker's Wife. I knew nothing of Sondheim then, and consequently subconsciously expected it to have a happy ending. I have never forgotten the shock of the second act. After years of waiting for a professional revival we have now had two in succession – the Royal Opera production and now one at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park.
I first tried to see this just under two weeks ago and was defeated by the rain. Life is rather hectic at the moment, and given the pressures of work, the threat of further rain, the reports of transport chaos, and general exhaustion, I nearly decided to give up the whole arduous business of a mad dash in from Lincoln for one night. Thank goodness I didn't. Despite some minor flaws, this show packs the necessary punch, and, as it has done nearly every other time I've seen it, had me weeping by the middle of the second act.
The production makes the most of the open air setting with an audacious multi-layered set, topped by Rapunzel's tower and shrouded by the actual trees. As darkness falls the shadows make an ever more effective wood. There is a consistent inventiveness – Cinderella's birds are nicely realised, the use of green umbrellas to create the beanstalk is magical, only the giant really doesn't work on the scenic front. Usually she is just an offstage presence, and on this showing it just isn't possible to make her sufficiently threatening when seen. There was something of a Doctor Who monster on insufficient budget about her which rather undid Judi Dench's Shakespearean delivery.
The performances of the leads included some absolute gems. The Baker's Wife is one of the great parts in the repertoire, and first time round (when the show only got as far as Agony before the rain called a halt) Jenna Russell had not managed to erase memories of either Imelda Staunton or Anna Francolini (who took the part at the ROH). Tonight she broke my heart completely. There was a superbly judged moment in “Moments in the Woods” when she pressed the Baker's scarf to her heart as she sang about “being back to or” which was one of those unforgettable little gestures with which a great performer can convey a whole life. Knowing what is about to happen to her only made it more powerful. Also spot on were Beverly Rudd's Little Red Riding Hood, teetering on the brink of womanhood, and Ben Stott's Jack. Cinderella is another character who doesn't completely come into her own in the first act (and indeed Helen Dallimore was hampered by the pointless rearrangement that has been made of the end of “On the Steps of the Palace”) but I have always loved her scenes in Act Two, and she, and Michael Xavier (doubling brilliantly as the Wolf and Cinderella's Prince) made me weep in their parting scene. The direction also nicely, subtly implied the possibilities between her and the Baker. There is significance in the fact that she is left holding his child when his wife goes to her death, and the little moment between them at the end allows us a fragile hope in the midst of the costly victory.
More problematic were Hannah Waddingham's Witch (of whom I had expected great things) and Mark Hadfield's Baker. I have never seen a Witch to equal either Julia Mckenzie or Bernadette Peters who dominated the original productions. Waddingham was simply not threatening enough (perhaps a symptom of Act One which towards the end is here played overly comically) – and even with the loss of her powers in Act Two she should retain the power to terrify. Again she was hampered by the alterations of lyrics, a point I shall return to. Mark Hadfield was perfectly good but there was just that extra something lacking which Chip Zien, Ian Bartholomew and Clive Rowe have all shown in the role.
The secondary characters were all well taken, I have already noted Xavier's excellent wolf, of the others Billy Boyle is a nicely wistful Mysterious Man (and one can only regret he was not doubling, as is usual, as the Narrator) and Simon Thomas meets Xavier flounce for flounce, as Rapunzel's Prince.
So why, given all this does this show not quite work. The major irritant is the concept that has been imposed on the character of the Narrator. Here the part is played by a child. I want to make quite clear that I do not fault the performers in this case (three children rotate in the role); the decision is entirely a directorial error. The Narrator needs to have authority, and to stand apart – as he notes at the crucial moment of Act Two - “I tell the story, I'm not part of it”. Instead, throughout he is far too embroiled in the action. The addition of lots of dolls for him to mess about with is just annoying. To a limited extent this garners an emotional pay-off at the end, when the child is revealed to be the Baker's growing son, but too much of a price is paid for this in interfering with earlier elements of the piece for too little a reward. Most unfortunately, this directorially imposed conceit interferes with the most powerful moment in the whole piece when the Baker seems to hear his dead wife giving him advice to calm the child. Sondheim and Lapine's crafting here is spot on – centrally, the scene should run on seamlessly (whereas here the flow has to be interrupted to reveal the conceit). Sometimes, great art should just be let alone.
The other irritant comes from some of the rewriting – I assume it all comes from the Broadway revival (it is certainly not present in either the original Broadway or London versions). None of it improves on the original, all of it should be removed in any future revivals. Adding Jack and Red Riding Hood to the end of Cinderella's key number in Act One (“On the Steps of the Palace”) diminishes the clarity of Cinderella's story, for, as with the boy as narrator, no dramatic or musical gain. It also seems contrary to normal Sondheim practice – there is no reason for their characters to be in that scene, or for them to suddenly sing a couple of lines given that they are there. In Act Two, the lyrical changes to “Last Midnight” again lessen the impact. The lost lines “You're so nice. You're not good, you're not bad, you're just nice” have far more power than the new ones which focus the song on the Baker's son. The change in audience of the song is also a mistake from the rest of the group to the Baker's baby. I can see where the director got the idea from – the line “You're all liars and thieves like his father, like his son will be too” - but actually the rest of the song is much more concerned with the gulf between the Witch and the others cementing her status as outsider, blurred more broadly, and I think mistakenly, in this production by the performance being too light. The venom of the number, the curse at the end is far more directed at the adults than the baby, and in any case the implied threat that she's going to waltz off with the baby was just not convincingly put over. Finally, something funny has happened to the final dialogue between the Baker and his wife before she goes off to her death. I am certain that the last line here is “100 paces, go” and the point is that he acquiesces in her going, they part in anger. Not that she goes off afterwards, despite his specific injunction not to. Again, this in some barely perceptible way disrupts the balance of the relationship, again, not, I would suggest positively.
Some may call this nit-picking, and I should say again that I was moved to tears by Act Two, and particularly by the performances of Russell and Dallimore, but I do want to stress two points. The conceit surrounding the Narrator may be a mild form of the directorial problem, but it should also serve as a timely reminder that it is not necessary to reinvent the wheel. There is a reason the Narrator is usually played far differently. The changes to dialogue and lyrics may appear minor, but I would be sorry to see them become regularised inclusions in the show when in my opinion they detract from its power. In the end though this is still a show which packs a real punch in its second act, and when you've got material and performers of this calibre, reducing a hardened critic to tears, the rest for moments no longer matters.
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