I wish…

itw wyp

 

If only the film had been as good as this. I’ve always loved the score of Into the Woods, but outside of the glorious original London production at the Phoenix, the show as a whole has never quite worked for me. It’s a terrific idea to take a selection of familiar fairy-tales, mix them up, and then spend the second act showing the consequences of everybody getting their wish at the end of Act One, but James Lapine’s book has always been problematic. The problem, simply, is one of tone: unless the second act gets really dark, the stakes do not seem high enough to support the climactic act of violence in the script, and it becomes a show about how it’s OK to commit a murder in order to evade the consequences of a lesser crime as long as you sing a treacly, moralistic anthem as you move in for the kill, which probably isn’t quite the message the show’s authors intended. Unless you feel in the second act that the show’s characters are genuinely facing the apocalypse, the whole thing falls apart – but if you make the second act dark enough for the plot to make sense, the result (as at the Phoenix) is a show that’s too scary and upsetting for smaller children.

That given, director James Brining’s achievement in this dazzling, thrilling new production seems all the more remarkable. Taking his cue from the show’s finale, ‘Children Will Listen’, Brining’s masterstroke is to put children at the centre of his staging. Accordingly, instead of any kind of fairytale wood, this production opens in an infant school classroom (and ends in a post-apocalyptic hellscape), with children filing in to sit at their desks at the sound of the bell. The Narrator is the class teacher; at the end of the prologue, the kids line up, the Narrator hands them each a hi-vis vest, the classroom walls slide away, and the Narrator and the children set off on a field trip through the plot’s thicket of familiar and unfamiliar fairytales. At the end of Act One, with all the various fairytale characters having found whatever they wished for, the children end up back in the classroom, and the (surprisingly moving) final image of Act One is of the children dancing to the strains of ‘Ever After’ as the fairytale characters recede back into the woods.

This means, of course, that at the top of Act Two, the Giantess’s destruction – which, here, looks very much like a major earthquake – is visited upon a realistic classroom full of children as well as on the play’s various adult (or just-about-adult) characters, which considerably raises the stakes. The children are led back into the woods in search of safety along with everyone else, but when the Narrator disappears from the story halfway through the second act (in a coup-de-theatre nicked from/paying homage to Richard Jones’s original London production), they suddenly seem horribly vulnerable – which means the play’s ending makes a great deal more sense, because it’s far easier to rationalise that climactic act of violence when the safety of actual children, rather than just a prop baby, is at stake.

It helps, too, that the Giantess, in this production, isn’t simply an offstage voice; Rachael Canning’s puppet design – an outsized baby head and arms manipulated by three puppeteers – is supremely creepy, and the Giantess’s appearances are genuinely chilling. Throughout the show, Brining’s treatment of the fairytale setting tends towards the macabre, which again is the correct choice (the too-pretty, too-facile original Broadway production, which is available on DVD, is a sterling example of the pitfalls of making this show look too beautiful: it’s visually lovely, and the second act just doesn’t work on any level). At no time, here, are we in a literal wood. Instead, these woods are a strange landscape of swings, found objects, projected trees, and fragments of the school classroom. It’s an unsettling, disorientating environment (designed, along with the one-foot-in-the-real-world costumes, by Colin Richmond) in which anything can happen; by the climax of Act Two, it really does feel as if the characters (and the children) are facing the end of the world, and for the first time (that I’ve seen) since 1990, the show’s ending doesn’t leave an unpleasant aftertaste.

Brining has also managed to elicit a superb set of performances from his ensemble cast, all of whom are drawn from Opera North’s chorus (the production, a collaboration between Opera North and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, is a side-project for the Leeds-based chorus, who are under-occupied while the company works through the Ring Cycle on tour). The singing is marvellous, of course, and so is the orchestra (somewhere backstage – the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Quarry Theatre doesn’t have a pit – under the pitch-perfect direction of Jim Holmes), and Sondheim’s sparkling lyrics come across with admirable clarity; the acting, too, is excellent, to the point where it’s almost unfair to single anyone out for individual praise. That said, Claire Pascoe is a particularly memorable Witch whose ‘Last Midnight’ raises goose-pimples, and Gillene Butterfield (a lovely Julie Jordan in Opera North’s Carousel) is simply perfect as Cinderella. The children are adorable, Nicholas Butterfield makes an endearingly stuffy Narrator, and while the staging certainly gets very dark, everybody finds the laughs in the book and lyrics. It’s as good an Into the Woods as you could hope to see.

In fact, my only real complaint about this production is that I don’t have time to get back to Leeds to see it again. It’s to be hoped that Opera North will revive it at some point in the future, as they did with their Carousel; Brining’s endlessly inventive staging here surpasses even his extraordinary modern(ish)-dress Sweeney Todd three years ago, and it deserves a wider audience.

Mrs. ‘Arris Goes To Sheffield

 

flowers for mrs harris

 

This is something very special. ‘Flowers for Mrs. Harris’ is a new musical by Richard Taylor and Rachel Wagstaff, based on a novel by Paul Gallico. Gallico’s Mrs. Harris is a widowed cleaning-lady in postwar London who sees a Dior dress hanging in the bedroom of one of her wealthy clients and is so struck by its beauty that she embarks on a quest to buy one for herself, in the process bringing about profound changes both in her own life and in the lives of the people she encounters on her journey to Paris. The novel is slight but charming; in 1992 it was made into a slight but less-than-charming TV movie starring Angela Lansbury, and you’d never guess from either that the property could be transformed into a musical that is as moving as anything I’ve seen in – well, let’s say the last twenty years.

What Taylor and Wagstaff have done is quite simple, although Taylor’s (often very beautiful) music is anything but: between them, they’ve done an extraordinarily good job of making you see the world through their heroine’s eyes, and feel everything she feels. Taylor’s score is through-composed (in the operatic sense; the show has a fair amount of spoken dialogue, though more in the second act than the first), with few extractable songs, and you aren’t going to come out of the theatre humming the show’s big hit – but while the music is certainly complex, it somehow also manages to go straight for the heartstrings. Taylor and Wagstaff find something profoundly moving in this rather odd story about a woman whose life is unexpectedly transformed by an encounter with an expensive dress, and they’ve spun from it a musical of considerable, surprising power.

There’s something almost miraculous, too, about Clare Burt’s performance in the title role. She’s nothing like Angela Lansbury in the film, thank God – much as I love Lansbury, playing working-class characters who are not music-hall caricatures is not her greatest strength, and every note of her performance in the film rings false. Burt, by contrast, is absolutely compelling. Mrs. Harris’s Road to Damascus moment when she first sees the dress ten minutes into Act One (cleverly suggested by Mark Henderson’s endlessly subtle lighting, you don’t see an actual Dior dress until a third of the way into Act Two) could easily seem ridiculous or comical, but in Burt’s performance it’s neither (in the film, that scene doesn’t work at all). It’s a surprisingly moving, surprisingly emotional moment, as is the parade of dresses when Mrs. Harris finally gets to the Dior boutique in Paris. As someone who is usually completely uninterested in clothes (I mean, I wear them, obviously, but I didn’t even pay much attention to fashion when I was a teenager, and I haven’t been a teenager for a very long time now), I would never have expected a fashion show to move me to the brink of tears, but Mrs. Harris is enraptured by the moment, and because she is, so are we. It goes without saying, of course, that Burt’s singing is superb, but this is as remarkable an acting performance as you’re likely to see in a musical this year. It’s not a great big grandstanding star turn along the lines of Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard (not that there’s anything wrong with that) – it’s simply a quietly luminous portrayal of an ordinary woman who is transformed by an encounter with something she finds beautiful. Burt, along with the writers, treads a very careful line – the material is unabashedly sentimental, and in the wrong hands the whole show could easily turn to treacle – and their softly-softly, subtle approach pays huge dividends.

Elsewhere, the cast includes a selection of musical theatre’s best and brightest performers, all working at the top of their game (and all playing more than one role). Mark Meadows is a joy as the late Mr. Harris (act one) and a kindly Marquis who befriends Mrs. Harris in Paris, and then there are glorious turns from Anna-Jane Casey (Mrs. Harris’s friend/neighbour Violet, and a French charlady), Rebecca Caine (the owner of the dress Mrs. Harris sees in London, and the vendeuse in the Dior boutique in Paris), Laura Pitt-Pulford (a self-centred actress in London, and a kind-hearted model in Paris), Nicola Sloane (a countess in London, Dior’s seamstress in Paris), and Louis Maskell (one of Mrs. Harris’s clients in London, Dior’s accountant in Paris). Director Daniel Evans, in his swan-song at the Sheffield Crucible, does a fine job of keeping the plot moving while making sure the show has just the right amount of sweetness, Lez Brotherston’s set makes a great deal out of relatively little – London and Paris backdrops (Battersea Power Station and the Eiffel Tower figure prominently), a staircase, a few pieces of furniture, Mrs. Harris’s tiny kitchen  – and the finale, in which the Crucible’s turntable brings the show’s title to literal, glorious life, is a wonder to behold.

The show is that rare thing: an exquisitely-constructed entertainment that builds on its source material rather than dumbing it down (if you want a dumbed-down version of this story, you can always watch the Lansbury TV movie, which craps all over the novel from a very great height and rips the ending to shreds. Don’t say I didn’t warn you), and the whole, with this cast, is even greater than the sum of the parts. Apart from the remarkably self-absorbed “lady” sitting behind me who seemed unable to keep her mouth shut while the house lights were down – and that, sadly, is becoming par for the course when you go to the theatre these days – this is just about as perfect a theatrical experience as you could ever hope for. The cast, at the curtain call, clearly knew how special this show is. It’s sublime, and there simply aren’t enough superlatives to do it justice.

Whether it would be a hit in the West End is another question. This is, as I said, as good a new British musical as there has been in quite a while – beautiful score, literate book, perfect design and direction, stunning central performance, flawless supporting cast – and the run is just two and a half weeks, finishing tomorrow (and yes, if I had the time, I’d go back and see it again). It deserves to be remounted somewhere else, and it deserves to be recorded, because writing and performances as good as we have here ought to be preserved. In an ideal world, for a show as good as this, people would be storming the box office in a rush to get tickets… but this isn’t an ideal world, and about a third of the seats were empty at the performance I saw, and this isn’t the kind of show where you can rope in the punters by casting a couple of has-been X-Factor runners-up in bit parts. Unfortunately, that’s showbiz.