Once you've seen Victorian Opera’s new production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, it's unlikely you'll ever get it out of your head. It’s Melbourne’s current “anti-musical”, quietly intoxicating the audience with infectious force on the south side of the Yarra River, away from the blockbuster-style delivery of another four major musicals currently on stage in the newly-coined East End Theatre District on the river’s north side.

<i>Into the Woods</i> © Jeff Busby
Into the Woods
© Jeff Busby

Following the success of the painting-brought-to-life beauty of Sunday in the Park with George last year, Into the Woods is the second in a trilogy of Sondheim musicals presented by Victorian Opera. Once again directed by Stuart Maunder, the short rehearsal period belies the production’s precise completeness and its masterly collaborative execution. You might wish the entire performance could be vacuum-packed and stored forever in your memory.

Premièring in San Diego in 1986, the ingenuity of Into the Woods is the remarkable cohesive magic imparted by Sondheim’s music and lyrics. The plot, drawing attention to the perennial idea of what we wish for, is heavily driven by a descriptive music plump with syncopated speech rhythms and musical onomatopoeic action. Based on an amalgamation of characters from the Grimm brothers’ collected folk tales, Sondheim invents the story of a childless baker and his wife, in search of four objects belonging to “real” fairy tale characters in order to reverse a curse put on them by the neighbouring witch. Everyone wishes for something and their journey into the woods magnifies much of human nature and society in raw detail both poignantly and comically.

Maunder’s interpretation is cleverly straightforward, allowing the characters to sing-speak to each other, to themselves and to the audience with insight and clarity. His cast of 16 talented artists drawn from theatre, musical theatre and opera work seamlessly together to produce kinetically-charged drama, constantly searching and tirelessly on the move as they entertain with slapstick precision and a smattering of sexual appetite. Infused with an at-home “Aussie-ness”, accents do however inexplicably stray with inconsistencies. But overall, the delivery is dynamite, bringing crucial characterisation of voice that even a child’s good-versus-bad judgement could distinguish.

Victorian Opera's <i>Into the Woods</i> © Jeff Busby
Victorian Opera's Into the Woods
© Jeff Busby

Visually, Adam Gardnir’s set design evokes the promise of spring’s new life, reflecting the promise of wishes coming true as the adventure into the woods begins. The set takes the form of four receding bean-like budded arched branches framing additional branches and trunks which slide back and forth across the stage over three parallel, stepped levels. The effective but uncomplicated bird’s nest of branching meshes enchantingly with outstanding lighting by Philip Lethlean, illuminating the stage in a concoction of delicious cocktail colours and fractured shadows. With Harriet Oxley’s aptly multi-coloured fairy tale costumes, the overall conceptual result is faultless.

Operatic style surfaced as I felt an affinity with Mozart’s Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute when Queenie Van de Zandt, as the witch, soars vocally above all, demonstrating tremendous versatility through both guttural rage in Act I’s "Stay with me" and honeyed tenderness in Act II’s “Lament”. The remaining 15 cast members delight with robust performances and, together in the musical ensemble pieces, the voices work in a tightly balanced harmony.

The other standout performance comes from Matthew McFarlane as both the wolf and Cinderella’s prince. Fluidly broad-voiced and dastardly in nature, McFarlane’s opening in the wolf’s “Hello, little girl” is fetish-like frightening and foxy, and paired with Jeremy Kleeman as Rapunzel’s prince, the duo’s synchronised stage antics enthral, as does their vocal rendering of “Agony” in Acts I and II. Lucy Maunder is captivating as Cinderella, David Harris' baker develops vocally with a remarkable warm-toned instrument, Christina O’Neill as the baker’s wife is assertive and Melissa Langton as Jack’s mother bellows and chastises endearingly. John Diedrich’s two roles as the rational scientist-looking narrator and his cracker mysterious (swag)man contribute to what is a cast full of effortless adaptability and to round out, there is Milky White, the half-scale cow, roller-assisted with playfullness throughout the night.

Sondheim’s musical blend of motifs emanate poetically as Benjamin Northey conducts with sensitivity, moving the music along at a moderate tempo without overwhelming the narrative and letting the thought-provoking lyrics to resonate. Orchestra Victoria’s 13 musicians enliven the performance expertly, with Conrad Nilsson’s percussion exhibiting both wonderful vigour and delicacy. The soundscape is completed effectively by sound designer, Jim Atkins’ microphone-dressed cast and sound-overs, tainted however by some minor alternating sounds in the delivery.

Act I ends in blissful happiness for all but events turn for the worse in Act II and a fairy tale moral shines through as the musical tells us “Someone is on your side. No one is alone”. Despite an escape to the theatre, we can’t help but see ourselves mirrored and ponder on the current atrocities that strangle our world. Perhaps, as a team we can make things right…for now.

After another collaborative success, Victorian Opera will shortly announce their third instalment for 2015 to complete their trilogy of Sondheim musicals. My only wish is that the performance run extends beyond the eight sold-out performances offered this season but I’ll be careful not to wish for anything more.