Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Unique Take on 'Into the Woods' Doesn't Make for a Truly Storied Production -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Into the Woods
a musical by Stephen Sondheim
and James Lapine
Staged by the Hypocrites 
Mercury Theater, Chicago
Thru March 30

Some might suggest I did things backwards.

Rather than prepare to see Into the Woods by re-familiarizing myself with the original cast recording, watching a DVD of the show's late '80s Broadway production and reading through lyrics and notes in Stephen Sondheim's excellent Look, I Made a Hat compendium BEFORE I went to see the Hypocrites production at the Mercury Theater, I did so after.

So I would acknowledge that a little advance homework may have helped me to better understand the narrative of interwoven fairy tales, appreciate all the insights of Sondheim's lyrics and more fully embrace the numerous metaphors contained within.

But then, it's not like I entered the Mercury Theater for the Hypocrites' staging of Into the Woods completely uninitiated. I do own the DVD and have watched it in full or part over the years. Back in 2001 I saw a community theater production of the show. I have the cast recording and listened en route to the Mercury. And while I didn't know every lyric of every song going in, I was well-acquainted with many including the great Prologue with its "Into the Woods to..." refrains, "It Takes Two," "Ever After," "No One is Alone" and "Children Will Listen."

And while undoubtedly outranked by millions, I am very much a Sondheim aficionado. In fact, or at least opinion, there is no living practitioner in any art form that I hold in higher esteem (although Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney are greater personal favorites).

Thus, despite rather middling reviews from the Tribune's Chris Jones and others--though there were also some raves--I took advantage of a nearby Meetup and half-price tickets on HotTix to attend on Sunday without much advance planning.

Initially I didn't have any overt aversion to the cheeky approach, schoolyard setting, small cast of actors mostly playing multiple roles, minimal costuming--everyone wore jeans or leggings, even those playing princes, princesses & witches--and interpretive scenery, in which balloon-kebobs served as trees in the "woods."

The singing, by Sara Bockel (principally Cinderella), Aubrey McGrath (Jack, of beanstalk fame), Hannah Dawe (Little Red Riding Hood), Joel Ewing (the Baker), Allison Hendrix (the Baker's Wife), Hillary Marren (the Witch) and Kate Harris (Cinderella's stepmother), was uniformly solid, often stellar.

But barely into the second act of the near 3-hour affair, I couldn't wait for it to end, and when it did I couldn't help think that perhaps Into the Woods was just a Sondheim musical I didn't care for as much as Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, A Little Night Music, Follies, Company, Passion, Pacific Overtures, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Merrily We Roll Along or Gypsy and West Side Story (the last two being ones for which Sondheim only wrote the lyrics, rather than the music as well).

The songs I knew were great sounded great, but most of the others didn't really ensnare or move me. And I was confused enough by the plotline to have to check Wikipedia at Intermission and show's end to learn that I indeed had missed much.

If I had written this review right after seeing the performance, I would have said that I'd have preferred an hour of simply hearing the best songs rather than having sat through the whole thing.

But given my love of Sondheim--from whom nearly every lyric furthers the storytelling and offers keen insight--I was troubled by how mediocre I had found Into the Woods, especially as I recalled it being considerably better, even without recently revisiting it.

So first I asked my sister Allison, also a musical theater aficionado but not such a devotee of Sondheim, for her opinion of Into the Woods (she did not attend the current production with me, but has seen the show live and in recorded form).

She said she loved Into the Woods and that it was her favorite Sondheim musical. She also noted that several of the less-famous songs, like "Giant in the Sky," were really great.

This inspired me to go into the proverbial woods to watch the DVD, listen to the cast album, read the lyrics, acclimate to all the songs, digest Sondheim's annotations, learn more online, better appreciate the metaphors, appreciate the depth, meaning & beauty in the songs and the wonderful book by James Lapine, consider Chris Jones' critique of this production and realize that I, in fact, think Into the Woods itself is rather fantastic.

Thus, I'll cop to the possibility that had I delved deeper prior to Sunday's matinee, I might have better appreciated both the source material and the unique adaptation of it by director Geoff Button and his cast.

But while appreciating that truly embracing Sondheim's sophisticated musicals often requires some work--as in the case of Sunday in the Park with George, which I love but others don't--I believe a great musical should entertain those approaching it even for the first time.

In other words, homework shouldn't be mandatory, and it's not like I came as a complete neophyte.

So I will split the difference with the long-estimable Hypocrites. I won't specifically criticize the production or any of the choices in the way it was staged, and I genuinely applaud the efforts of all the performers and everyone involved.

But whereas I went in hoping this rendition would further my appreciation of Into the Woods and Stephen Sondheim, it did so only by initially lessening it.

So go see it if you so choose, but perhaps like me, your fondness for the the genius lurking within these fractured fairy tales will come more happily ever after.

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