Into the Woods – Nice is Different than Good
A REVIEW BY ACHILLES FEELS
Into the Woods is one of those musicals that everybody loves. There is something in it for practically every theatre goer; even the most catty reviewer like myself. Shows by Sondheim traditionally contain very difficult pieces of music to perform. The moving scales, the random (very) high-notes, the choruses where everybody has the same syllable pattern with each role is singing completely different words, and the extremely fast cadence of tongue-twisters like:
“Better stop and take stock/While you’re standing here stuck/On the steps of the palace. “
Seriously people, look at the lyrics to Into The Woods, or A Little Night Music and even reading them out loud will twist your tongue (and mind!) into knots. Singing them, along with the intended emotion and stage blocking, is even more difficult. This shiz-nit is hard!
This lyric heavy show in 2 (long) acts, currently playing at MICA’s BBOX theatre from Purple Light Theatre Company, combines the stories of every single childhood fairy tale you’ve ever loved and then pushes them all to the next, slightly twisted, level. The extremely dense plot begins with the Baker (Dan Wagner) and His Wife (Beth Amann) whining about the qualms and strife of everyday childless life. We quickly find out that the childlessness is caused by a curse from the disgruntled old lady living next door: The Witch (Angela Sullivan). In a moment of weakness, (’cause really, what witch tells you how to break her evil spells?!) she tells the semi-happy duo how to break the infertility curse, which includes gathering some incredibly random items. And here we go: Into the Woods. To procure these strange components, the couple venture out into their fairy tale land complete with many a gothic tower and talking tree. They lie, cheat, steal, and generally manipulate, in the most hilarious of ways, the arsenal of characters they come across: Little Red (Katie Ganem), Cinderella (Sherry Benedek) Rapunzel (Emily Morgan) Jack (Paul Kennedy) and His Mother (Cheryl J. Campo). Through the slow and painful acquisition of their baby-making ingredients (cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, cow as white as milk, and slipper as pure as gold) general confusion ensues and we start to lose touch with why each character in this large cast is doing what it is trying to do to. By the end of Act I, we’ve got an angry (female!) Giant (voiced by Rose Wallace), a few dead characters, and voila! A baby! The Narrator (Jessica Ruth Baker) interjects throughout the show and tells the cast and audience like it is, fills in the blanks with jokes, transmits obvious off stage happenings, and imparts the sweet-toothed morals the book positively brims with. During Act 2, we understand how everybody’s twisted wishes have lead them downs paths of revenge, questionable decisions, and greed. We round out the story with a non-traditional family, a paternal unveiling, an abandoned evil Witch, and a everybody (who has survived) living happily ever after… ever after… ever after…
Uber kudos goes to The Purple Light Theatre Company for presenting, as their second show ever, Into The Woods. But let’s back up for just a moment. Sondheim. Sondheim as your second production. Ever. That’s more than a bit ambitious. IMHO, this team, spearheaded by Artistic Director (and Costume Designer) Tommy Malek, bit off slightly more than they could chew, with mixed results. With an artistic and production team comprised mostly of recent UMBC grads, I don’t think this team was ready to fully execute the version of Into The Woods they were hoping to present. For example: the set, designed by William K. D’Eugenio, was simple, fit perfectly into MICA’s BBOX performance space, and was well crafted. But I wondered why they chose to use two aluminum extension ladders in one place when the rolling ladder they used in another was simply aged 2×4’s and large dowels. 2×4’s are a more simple approach and would have been cohesive than 2 shiny, labels-still-on, extension ladders that glared and gleamed in the lights. The lighting (also by D’Eugenio) tried really hard to be exceptional. But the actors mostly missed their marks and there seemed to be some issues calling the show which left people, frequently, in the dark. This also could have been due to not enough tech rehearsal time or a half-asleep lighting console operator not paying attention, (no board-op was credited in the program.) D’Eugenio clearly tried to make a very dynamic show with an exceptional arsenal of technical tools, but way too often there was not enough contrast on the performers faces, leaving them looking flat, adequately illuminated, or simply backlit. The haze was a nice touch, but was not used to its potential to convey volumetric texture.
Since this show is so incredibly dense, it is difficult (but not impossible) to pick out performances that I found to be stellar. As a whole, the entire cast needs to work on their stage confidence and vocal projection. It is obvious that every single performer on Purple Light’s stage has a wonderful voice, but few sang out, making it very difficult to follow the story. The “entire company” numbers were indeed exceptional, when each performer could lean on the next for vocal support. That said, I really enjoyed the duo that is Dan Wagner and Beth Amann. Their chemistry was awkwardly dry, which worked well for a slightly disheveled couple dealing with life. Angela Sullivan belted her tones quite wonderfully and nicely portrayed the various transformations that The Witch goes through over the course of the two acts. Katie Ganem worked hard for the money, in a role I’m not sure she’s appropriate for, but it ultimately payed off well. You can tell she really gave this show her all (I only wish we did not get her back to the audience quite so frequently so we could hear her voice better). As I said before, the rest of the vocals were obviously there, just not in strong and confident voice, so they got lost as mission-critical solo moments.
Direction by Malek (with Music Direction by Benjamin Nabinger) was strong and well executed. There is constant, deliberate movement throughout a show that can easily stagnate visually. I questioned the constant movement of the prop chest, but it worked okay and revealed some wonderfully funny moments. I’m glad the team decided to use recorded orchestrations (by: MTPit, L.L.C; a very common pre-recorded music track for musicals without a live pit orchestra) as it helped to keep the fast pace of the performances on target. Otherwise I’m sure the show would have dragged on. The sound system was strangely balanced, with a speaker cluster somewhere offstage and to one side that sounded muffled and overly bassey. Performers were not individually miced and this combined with some unprojected singing lead to the lost of about ½ the show’s fabulous lyrics. At one point, we did hear a bit of high-pitched squelch in the sound coming from above, so there were mics somewhere that were ineffectively used. (There’s no sound engineer credited in the program, a big no-no for a musical at this scale)
The Bottom Line: Into The Woods is a hard-as-hell show to put on, but PLT put it together in a way that makes you say “cheerio to them!” For a show that often drags on, and on, and on, they kept up the pace and kept me interested in what was happening for the majority of the show. This team of stellar singers are to be commended for pulling off this lyric-heavy production with such suave and charisma. I wonder where Purple Light is going and am excited to see what is next on their docket. I only hope they pick something a little more suited for a company fresh out of the gate.
Running at The Purple Light Theatre Company from July 25th-August 3rd
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