Belvoir St Theatre, March 22


Peter Carroll. Top: Tamsin Carroll. Photos: Christopher Hayles.

Once upon a time in a modest little theatre in an inner suburb of Sydney, an audience was taken by the hand into led into the woods – although there weren’t actually any trees. And on the smallish stage in the modest theatre (without any trees) all sorts of magic happened – and kept happening for three hours. Which is quite a long time.

Director Eamon Flack has unlocked the beating heart of this work by musical theatre’s greatest creator, Stephen Sondheim, and thereby shrugged aside the need for elaborate staging. That heart is the characterisations. Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (book) may have stolen characters from fairy tales, but they thickened them with desires and foibles, courage and fear, humour and cruelty, and, twinkling in the distance through the imaginary trees, self-knowledge.

Shubshri Kandiah. Photos: Christopher Hayles.

Flack has cast these characters with breathtaking acuity. If you want a Witch who is variously smart, wicked, honest and glamorous (with a Gabor-like accent), and can sing her pointy hat off, then you get Tamsin Carroll. If you want a Cinderella who can dance lightly across the nastiness of her stepmother and stepsisters, transform herself from scullery maid to belle of the ball, talk to the birds, snare the prince and then dispatch him when he proves unfaithful, Shubshri Kandiah is hard to beat.

This continues with Mo Lovegrove’s Little Red Riding Hood, Marty Alix’s Jack (of beanstalk fame), Stephanie Caccamo’s Rapunzel, Peter Carroll’s Narrator and Mysterious Man, Tim Draxl’s Prince and Wolf, Justin Smith’s Baker, Ann-Maree McDonald’s Stepmother, Andrew Coshan as the other prince and Lena Cruz as Jack’s mother. Particular plaudits go to Esther Hannaford as the Baker’s Wife, whose spell-induced barrenness sets in motion the mangled train of events that is the plot. Hannaford mingles knowingness and delightful vagueness with the character’s desperate need for a child.

Mo Lovegrove. Photos: Christopher Hayles.

Many actors double other roles, including McDonald playing a second piano beside Simon Holt, with musical supervisor Guy Simpson having stripped Jonathan Tunick’s original orchestrations down to two pianos and percussion – and done it so cleverly that you’d swear it was written that way.

Similarly, Michael Hankin’s set is simply a round rostrum for the pianos (and assorted action), and walls that migrate from ruched curtains to gloss black. Hankin also had a hand in the most exotic of Micka Agosta’s marvellous costumes, including Rapunzel’s, who wears the very tower from which she must let down her hair for her suitor.

David Bergman’s sound design includes such thunderous footsteps for the giant that you fear more than the odd unfortunate character may be crushed, while the giant’s voice (performed by Pamela Rabe) is equally gargantuan.

Esther Hannaford. Photos: Christopher Hayles.

With the characterisations so complete, the music uncluttered and the singing so good, one can fully enjoy the brilliance of Sondheim’s songs. Firstly, there’s the ingenious way in which the threads of music – sometimes fragmentary amidst the dialogue – are tied into a holy unity, and then there’s the thrilling flair of the rhymes. In many art forms excessive virtuosity becomes vulgar, but in lyric writing it’s a godsend. Whether it’s the Wolf’s aside (about Little Red Riding Hood) of “There’s no possible way/to describe what you feel/when you’re talking to your meal”, or Cinderella’s rhyming of “malice” with “palace”, the three hours are almost fully justified by the lyrics, alone. That’s before we come to the astute thematic handling of desire, parenting, morality and the strength that lies in community – as every theatre-maker knows.

Until April 23.