Musicals & Opera review: Into the Woods | Atlantic America and the Great War | Atlantic: A Scottish Story

Atlantic: A Scottish Story. 'Caroline Lyell as Evie. 'Photo by RCS/Julie Howden
Atlantic: A Scottish Story. 'Caroline Lyell as Evie. 'Photo by RCS/Julie Howden
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Edinburgh Festival Fringe: Nobody could accuse the students of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland of being lazy. With three productions at the Fringe this year, most of the cast rushes daily from one show to the next and, impressively, settles straight in to playing a completely different role.

MUSICALS & OPERA

Into the Woods

****

Atlantic: America and the Great War

***

Atlantic: A Scottish Story

***

All at Assembly Hall (Venue 35)

So too the excellent musicians who, sadly, get no recognition at the end of Into The Woods, hidden behind a curtain.

Stephen Sondheim’s 1980s musical is a tricky one to carry off, filled as it is with fairytale characters typically aimed at children, but containing more adult themes such as the search for love and contentment when reality bites. The syncopated speech, too, is a challenge – to sing text in a way that’s coherent and carries weight is no mean feat.

So kudos to this strong cast that the show does what it should: engage us with its storytelling, make us laugh with its humour, and provoke a tear with Sondheim’s poignant reflections on parenting. As a vocal ensemble, their tightness is almost exhilarating, harmonies soaring and energy bouncing off the stage. Special praise goes to the hilarious Prince Charming double-act, played by identical twins Péter and András Horváth, Caroline Lyell (a young Bernadette Peters) whose Witch drips nastiness before belting out a powerhouse number, and the strength and tenderness of Philippa Cassar as a pure-voiced Cinderella.

Atlantic: America and the Great War and Atlantic: A Scottish Story both take the Atlantic Ocean as their starting point and, unlike the tried and tested Into The Woods, are receiving their world premieres at the Fringe.

The Conservatoire has teamed up with Chicago’s Northwestern University for the dual productions, with both creative team and performers drawn from each establishment. Built to stand alone, or to work as nice companion pieces, the two Atlantic shows have the same fundamental through-line: the need to spread your wings and explore, in order to find out where you belong.

In America and the Great War, we find young US soldiers and nurses heading far from home to participate in a war on a different continent. Abigail Stephenson shines as a young sister, determined to follow in the footsteps of her presumed dead sibling, and bring her home. Despite the cramped stage, a strong ensemble of musicians and singers use simple physicality to take us on the train from Memphis to New York, and across the ocean to England and France.

There’s something slightly incongruous about depicting the devastating horrors and losses of the First World War in what is essentially a light-touch musical, and there’s a distinct absence of anything approaching gritty realism here. But it’s an absorbing hour, and one which may well produce a tear or two with its touching denouement.

Set on a remote island, A Scottish Story is a tale of longing, both for places and people. A young couple is torn apart, when his desire to see the world clashes with her need to stay home. We see him journey across the Atlantic, hang out in New York bars, visit the Grand Canyon – while she works in the mill, marries a man she loves less and has a child, relying on his letters to live life vicariously.

Once again, it’s the ensemble moments that really fly here, with beautifully pitched harmonies. And while some of the accents prove less than convincing, there’s no denying the passion of every one of these performers.

Into the Woods until 27 August. Today 11:30am. Atlantic: America and the Great War until 26 August. Tomorrow 3pm. Atlantic: A Scottish Story until 27 August. Today 3pm.