Once upon a time (that was last night), I saw Into the Woods at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre. It was one of the best things I have seen in London.
The sylvan setting was breathtaking, enclosed by beautifully lit trees and centred around a treehouse-style series of rickety platforms, spiralling staircases and ladders. The production made full use of the space, with Rapunzel's nesting box of tower positioned halfway up a tree, a staircase of umbrellas popping up to create a beanstalk, and the enormous Giant rearing to life out of undergrowth at the side of the stage. Fantastically whimsical costumes completed the impression and visually, the show was absolutely perfect.
In fact, pretty much everything was spot on. The cast was outstanding, with an assured and hugely charismatic performance from Hannah Waddingham as the Witch, and Michael Xavier excelling as a ravenous and, erm, "charged" Wolf and suavely self-absorbed Cinderella's Prince. Beverly Rudd also delighted as a gleefully greedy Little Red Riding Hood and, with one or two minor exceptions (Giants in the Sky - a Mr Christopher favourite - was less strident and urgent than it could have been), the performances were unimpeachable.
Into the Woods has always come under fire for its second act, which critics say loses its edge, contains weaker songs and gets its preach on. The moralising is undeniable - any show that contains direct instructions on how to parent is going to get on some people' wick. But the plot and songs are fine - they're just different to those of the first act. The first act is the first movement or theme; it sets up shop and could be a neatly contained, simple (if inconsequential) show in itself. The second act then takes the first as its starting point; it plays on it, builds on it, pulls it apart a little and - yes - deviates. But as one article argued this week, it shows Sondheim's genius in forcing contrasts, darkness and dissonance into what can be a saccharine genre.
The reviews have rightly been excellent and it's just a shame that the run, at five weeks, is so short. Get a ticket if you can.
Until 11 September, Open Air Theatre.
UPDATE 16 MARCH 2011: Into the Woods wins Best Musical Revival at the 2011 Olivier Awards.