Image credit: Maeve O’Connell.

Reviewed by Talia Carlisle

Not dissimilar to the high fashion of the Met Gala, I adorned my best tiara and lavender frock, ready to descend Te Auaha’s stairs to Witch Music Theatre’s Into The Woods. There isn’t a more magical staircase to a fairytale full of laughter.

If the eye-catching advertising isn’t enough to draw your attention, I can assure you the stunning imagery on their life-sized placards across Wellington is just an appetiser compared to the jaw-dropping perfected musical creation of this ambitious Stephen Sondheim musical brought to life by Witch Music Theatre.

When the hundreds of lights dimmed (all perfectly placed to capture each enchanting scene) I gasped out loud, intrigued by Kevin Orlando’s powerful opening narration and mystical lighting by Joshua Tucker – bringing us all into the fairytale with them.

Sparkling lights reveal the full impact of stage designer Scott Maxim’s gravity-defying forest that invites every audience member deep “into the woods”.

There we find beautiful comradery between our love-struck princes (Jackson Burling and Glenn Horsfall). They both have impeccable comedic timing and physicality in their dancing and flouncing towards the princess of their dreams.

Jackson plays Cinderella’s Prince and is sneakily talented, doubling as the seducing and sleazy Wolf who throws us into the pit of the play and fills our bellies with laughs and very fun gags that keep us entertained and intrigued throughout.

Our Cinderella (Gayle Hammersley) is sweet, soulful… and stressed as she clearly does not have time for romance in her busy life competing to exist alongside her obnoxiously suffocating yet style-abundant step sisters Lucinda (tonight played by Tessa Deacle) and Florinda (Mia Alonso-Green).

The genius of director Nick Lerew shines through in his brilliant casting of every character, each with their own curated comedy style and physical comedic elements – many perfecting these for multiple characters they understudy!

Jack’s friend, crowd favourite, and cow, Milky White (Felicity Cozens) walks onstage to an uproar of applause each time. Playing a cow isn’t the easiest task but Milky succeeds with absolute aplomb, many fun gags, and Met Gala-worthy cow fashion we can all learn from.

Milky’s owner and friend, Jack, is played by Tara Canton who is a dreamer, a teen, unafraid of adventure or giants, but intimidated by his mother, played by the energetic and multi-talented Paula Gardyne.

Every actor keeps us all intrigued throughout every skip to Granny’s, every tumble from Rapunzel’s tower, and every thundering footstep of a giant. All of their talents shine bright far above us with some notable highlights in Greer Perenara’s perfect witch cackle, Jackson Burling’s Wolf snarl, and Aria Leader-Fiamatai’s Little Red Riding Hood skip, all complemented with great direction, a jaw dopping yet versatile set, and soulful singing by all – but particularly Emily Yeap as a fiery Rapunzel with the voice of an angel.

All of Sondheim’s clever lines were easy to absorb thanks to some clever and creative sound mixing designed by Patrick Barnes, impeccable pronunciation and clear projecting.

Every single part of the show is my favourite with some heartfelt ballads, and high-fashion thrown in by costume designers Nadia Newman and Emma Stevens who did an incredible job to make sure everyone looked amazing, not just great. And Wow, does everybody look good or what!

The best part is that no one is left out, every character shines, and most of all everybody is having a good time. A really good time, to the point where off-stage staff are dancing along to their music at intervals, and Lucinda actor Aimee Sullivan used her night off so she could watch the show!

The show has a masterful smoothness to its process and execution. The story flows beautifully utilising Ed Blunden as an entertaining Steward, Joanne Lisik as Cinderella’s self-obsessed Step-mother and mother, and the fretful Bakers’ endless search for magic, (William Duignan and Aine Gallagher). Our fabulous narrator and Mysterious Man (Kevin Orlando) leads us with laughter and conviction through the show’s twists and turns.

Sometimes the story moves so fast it’s hard to keep up with why the characters have disappeared or reappeared, even though there isn’t that many – it just looks like it! But there is always more story, and somehow more characters to come. I don’t know if Sondheim is even keeping track, but seems a good enough excuse to come see it again so I’m pleased about that!

Since this story covers the happy ever afters of these characters and what happens after that, what I would like to see next is a spin-off musical starring Greer Perenara. Or anything by Witch Music Theatre. But she really is the most fun, wise and fabulous witchy personality on stage that keeps the story tracking, and uplifts the fashion in every room she is in.

I have a funny theory that the prequel to this show is the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s production of Romeo and Juliet, also a famous story of love turned to chaos, unnecessary fighting, magic potions, death, and also on in Wellington this week at the St James Theatre.

Into The Woods is on until Saturday at Te Auaha on 65 Dixon St. You better get in quick before the magic disappears! What path will you take into the woods?