Never would I have thought I would write the sentence “Go see this show for the Cow”, but that is the style of this truly ensemble piece.
The premise of the book is to look at the desire of all our fantasies through these well-known stories and the complaint often made about the show is that the first act is a long jolly jaunt (on the search to complete the witch's quest) that feels like it has ended before the second act deals with the consequences and becomes more relatable and real (spoiler – people die).
Here – from the opening "welcome to our show" apology that the barren Baker's Wife is being played by a pregnant actress, to the multi-casting, the allusion to sets and props (music sheets as birds, ladders and boxes as castles and thrones) and onstage musicians (the same actors displaying a talent for rustic instruments such as buckets, bells, banjos and oboes) – it's clear we are watching actors working rather than characters playing. And for the most part, this approach brings a new dynamic to the show. It actually manages to avoid being over demonstrative of this simplicity and – after the far too busy opening number (where the multi casting and constant racing to centre stage is a bit too messy to keep up with) – settles into a central vision that makes the music and props drift appropriately into the background.
When it works, it works really well at drawing us in with its subtleties and charm as nothing is hidden from us. Andy Grotelueschen makes Jack's cow (and Rapunzel's Prince) hilarious and upstages everyone with a 'moo' that has to be seen to be appreciated – his understatedness and comic timing is a joy to watch and is easily the standout performance (whilst also singing with the strength and timing that Sondheim demands). Never would I have thought I would write the sentence “Go see this show for the Cow”, but that is the style of this truly ensemble piece. And Emily Young's almost fetishistic lust for her own hair as Rapunzel (it's little more than a yellow tea towel with appended rope) also matches comedy with a powerful soprano.
But it has to be said that others in the cast, whilst perfectly passable, are less memorable, particularly Vanessa Reseland who brings nothing new or exciting to the Witch which is disappointing for those who have seen the show before – although possibly at the fault of previous productions as Sondheim's official biographer told me afterwards that this was never supposed to be the characterised 'star' part that Bernadette Peters and others turned it into. Nonetheless, it's impossible not to compare.
Though Sondheim purists may be divided over this particular production – and indeed, there were some empty seats after the interval – the fact that it has the backing of both him and James Lapine makes me think this is possibly the truest take on the show as it was meant. After the initial fussiness, the (arguably overlong) two and a half hours fly by with all the simple elements of casting and minimal props bringing a swiftness to the narrative and a dynamic freshness due to its lack of theatricality. The mere backdrop of ropes hanging and the fore-arch of piano keyboards above the proscenium still draw you in and help make this the most welcoming of scary woods in which to have a very pleasurable adventure.