by Lynn on January 16, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Hart House Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Lapine
Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick
Directed by Jeremy Hutton
Music director, Giustin MacLean
Set by Joe Pagnan
Costumes by Michelle Tracey
Lighting by Simon Rossiter
Choreography by Michele Shuster
Sound by JayLynn Hines
Cast: Colin Asuncion
Nevada Banks
Moulan Bourke
Saphire Demitro
Sarite Harris
Bradley Hoover
James King
Matt Lacas
Michelle Nash
Chiano Panth
Jayne Peters
Alexandra Reed
Hugh Ritchie
Jaymie Sampa
Maksym Shkvorets
Amy Swift
Korin Thomas-Smith
Erin Winsor
Rachel Wood

What a herculean challenge and so well met by the cast. Lots of imagination here but I so wish that imaginative director Jeremy Hutton got out of the way and let the show be.

NOTE: Because of a major technical glitch the day before the opening, the cast did not have a proper dress rehearsal. So the proposed opening night became that dress rehearsal. There was one little technical hiccup last night (‘opening’) but I am reviewing it as if it was the opening, with that one ‘note’, because the production is so accomplished.

The Story. Into the Woods, the 1987 collaboration between Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine is a mashup of several Grimm’s fairy tales. Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstrock, Cinderella and Rapunzel among others.

It starts with a Baker and his Wife. They are desperate for a child but the Witch next door put a curse on the Baker’s family. It seems that the Baker’s father stole some beans from the Witch’s garden and she put a curse on the whole family in which no children would be born. To reverse the curse (thank you Stephen Sondheim for that impish, elegant rhyme), The Baker and his Wife have to go into the woods and gather four things the Witch needs to dispel the spell. That is where they meet all the other characters connected to the story. This being Sondheim and Lapine, there is philosophy, intellectual musings, musings on life, family, children, teaching, listening, mishaps, disappointment and loving. And they sing about it all.

The Production. There are images of clocks on the three walls of Joe Pagnan’s huge set, with a large clock face up stage centre with only one hand it seems pointing to the 12. Various characters move door frames abound to establish the various locations of the characters. The Baker and his Wife are stage right. Jack and his mother are stage left.

The Narrator enters carrying something in his hand. He sits at the edge of the stage and fiddles with it, tweaking here, arranging something there. If a person is in the first two rows they can see that what the Narrator is holding is a model of the set. I am sitting seven rows back and couldn’t make head nor tail of what the Narrator is holding and certainly not when he sits down. Not a good beginning.

Time seems to be a metaphor for this show, what with all the clocks. There are frequent ticking sounds as well. That’s a bit mystifying since time is only of the essence in Act One when The Baker and his Wife have three days to gather the four items. And since the book references the passage of time adding clocks and ticking seems overkill.

If a character travels from one place to another, as Little Red Riding Hood does as she skips to her grandmother’s house, then trees move up along each side of her (noisily on their rollers), then veer away from her, turn back and then up along the side of her again etc. suggesting distance travelled. Other times when there is much movement there is also a spiralling lighting effect that adds to the activity.

The Witch (a spirited Saphire Demitro) sings of how The Baker’s father was: “Rooting through my rutabaga/Raiding my arugula and/Ripping up the rampion/(My champion! My favourite!)/I should have laid a spell on him” a killer patter song, that details the wrongs done to her and later how the Baker and his Wife can reverse curse by bringing her the items she needs. There is so much movement/choreography, with a rap of her staff on some words, and the speed with which she thinks she has to sing it, that occasionally the words are lost in Saphire Demitro’s energetic performance. Later her singing of “Stay With Me” sung to her daughter Rapunzel, is haunting and heartbreaking.

The cast is very strong and committed. They sing beautifully, albeit with microphones—it’s sad that voice projection taught in theatre schools seems a thing of the past—with James King as the Baker, Colin Asuncion as Jack and Michelle Nash as Cinderella as standouts in a standout cast.

I can appreciate that going into the woods to find, lose and find things again is an energetic journey and Michelle Shuster’s choreography is vibrant and lively in suggesting that journey. I can also appreciate the huge effort and imagination required by director Jeremy Hutton to imagine the world of the play and to negotiating his cast through that world. But I couldn’t help thinking with all the moving trees, props, spiralling lighting effects, ticking, whirring, clanging sound effects that it is all too much for a show already loaded with a lot of stuff to contend with. One needed Gravol for the motion sickness one got watching all that activity on stage. And it’s very telling that the most effective scenes, whether sung or just talked, were those scenes without all the attendant distracting effects and frantic movement.

Comment. Into the Woods is a beast of a show. Sondheim’s lyrics and music alone are a challenge. Of all his shows this one seems to me that he is riffing on himself. Even with huge respect and appreciation for his brilliance I think he goes overboard. Whether it’s the Witch’s song about her ravaged garden, or “It Takes Two”, or any song in the forest that goes on and on, often I thought that Sondheim had stated his case nicely but still went on to belabour the obvious. Still he’s a genius.

My concerns about over-directing aside, I thought the cast and all the creatives of this show, did the piece proud.

Presented by Hart House Theatre

Opened: January 15, 2016.
Closes: January 30, 2016.
Cast: 19; 8 men, 11 women
Running Time: 2 hours 40 minutes.

Leave a Comment

Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.