No Happily-Ever-Afters, Sondheim version

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The last production of Into the Woods that I saw was the Broadway revival in 2002 where Vanessa Williams’ super campy, deliciously fag-haggy Witch looked like it served as a beta version of her more fully realized Wilhelmina Slater character in Ugly Betty (which, lamentably, just ended its  four-season run, sigh).  For me, a devoted Stephen Sondheim acolyte, this show probably belongs in the middle of the pack of the Great One’s dazzling body of work – although it contains some of Sondheim’s most beautifully haunting songs (“Children Will Listen”, “No More”, “No One Is Alone”) and bittersweet insights about the relationship between parents and children, I’ve always felt it to be a little audience-distancing given its messily-constructed interweaving plotlines and complicated musical rhythms.   Which I find quite ironic, given the fact that the musical has, as its main characters, some of the most beloved fairy tale characters ever, Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and Cinderella, not to mention a Baker and the Baker’s Wife.   So I was interested to see what Porchlight Music Theater, which does Sondheim like no other in this city in my opinion, would do to make this work more accessible.  Although I liked some elements of Porchlight Music Theatre’s Into the Woods, directed by Artistic Director L. Walter Stearns, I still didn’t come away thinking this work is transcendent Sondheim, unlike so many of his other works.

I’ve always felt that the biggest problem with Into the Woods is its chaotic book.  I think creating a musical where fairy tale characters do not totally live happily ever after is pretty clever.  However, this cleverness has been buried deep down under the many story lines and characters that crisscross, that weave in and out, and that are tantalizingly mentioned (Cinderella’s Prince’s discovery of the slumbering Snow White doesn’t go anywhere, for example); it feels like there’s so much clutter onstage.  And in this Porchlight production, that sense of clutter feels heightened by the small space of the Theater Building which cramp the actors’ choreography and by the use of video projections that look like an odd combination of shadow puppetry and computer generated  animation, sometimes distracting the audience from the live performances happening in front of it.  And it’s some of the performances in this production that really make you see how complex and how flawless (at times) Sondheim’s music is and how touching and heartwarming his lyrics are in painting imperfect relationships and the legacies people leave with the lives they lead.

I think Brianna Borger’s Baker’s Wife beautifully anchors this production (in the same way Joanna Gleason’s Tony-winning one did the original 1987 Broadway production, which I saw on video many, many years ago) with a grounded, big-hearted, unshowy performance.  She has impeccable comic timing (one of the funniest bits of the night for me is when she says she pulled a lock of Rapunzel’s hair from “some woman in a tower”), but also poignancy (when she sings that she thinks she’s in the wrong story after making out with Cinderella’s Prince, it’s achingly sad-funny).  Plus she has a terrific, bravura voice that bravely and successfully navigates those quick-shifting Sondheim patterns and tones.  Steve Best as her husband, The Baker, is more than an equal match, giving a warm, pragmatic performance as well.  He absolutely nails “No More”, one of my favorite Sondheim songs ever, giving so many wistfully graceful layers to this unforgettable song about a son trying to reconnect with a parent he has not had any relationship with.  As my avid blog readers know, I am a big fan of Bethany Thomas and I think she is one of the best musical theater performers in this city; I’m pleasantly surprised that her performance as the Witch deviates from the standard template in which this role is usually performed.  First, unlike Bernadette Peters in the original production and the divine Ms. Williams’ in the Broadway revival, this Witch feels more like an essential piece of the ensemble than some scene-stealing fashionista diva.  Second, she plays the Witch, after she has been transformed into her old youthful self, as a cool Bette Davis cat, more an annoyed observer of the proceedings, versus a slinky, seductive Lana Turner type who is always trying to live down how deformed she looked in Act One, a tone that Peters and Williams both adopted.  It’s an unconventional interpretation, but not an unwelcome one.  And I disagree with the Trib’s Chris Jones, those Bethany pipes sell “Children Will Listen” like it’s a price-slashed Birkin bag!  I think the rest of the ensemble range from good to uneven, with some of the actors coming off like they understand the songs intellectually, but not emotionally; and, like some recent Porchlight productions, there seems to be some wandering pitch problems (I don’t think Musical Director Eugene Dizon’s musicians and Scott J. Sumerak’s Jack have found the right alignment in the difficult, yes, but should-be-showstoppingly- exuberant song, “Giants In the Sky”). 

If you haven’t seen Into the Woods before, you may want to check this production out as an introduction to this musical.  For those of us who have struggled with this show in the past, I don’t think this Porchlight production, despite all good intentions, will help us change what we think of the work.

All those fairy tale characters are lost in the woods of the Theater Building, 1225 W. Belmont, until May 30.

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