Into the Woods
Music & Lyrics by: Stephen Sondheim
Book by: James Lapine
Directed by: L. Walter Stearns
At Theatre Building Chicago
Into the Woods is a journey worth taking.
I have always considered Stephen Sondheim to be the best writer of musical theatre of all time because he does not sacrifice character and story in order to fit in additional songs. His music is complex, intricate, and creates an exceedingly unique sound. As much as I enjoy Sondheim, this was my first experience with Into the Woods, so I can not compare this production to other ones. Where this production succeeds is that the design is simple and does not overshadow the characters or story (from what I understand, the spectacle in this show can be rather large). It is a well-sung, well-acted, well-staged musical that is worth taking a look at.
Into the Woods follows lots of familiar fairy tale characters; Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Jack, Rapunzel, as they try to make their wishes come true. In the midst of all of this, a baker and his wife are trying to attain certain items in order to get a witch to release the curse from their household so they can have a baby. In this world, nothing fantastic happens in reality which is why characters must journey “into the woods.” All of these stories and characters collide as they find out that what you wish for isn’t always what you get in the end. The first act plays out like a traditional telling of these fairy tales if the characters happened to all meet each other. The second act is much darker and has a more profound view on the world we live in. It has been said that the first act can stand alone, but I feel that without it the show would not be nearly as much impact. With so much action going on, director L. Walter Stearns keeps the action moving briskly, seamlessly transitioning from scene to scene without losing momentum. Most importantly, as I have already expressed, this production is about the characters and not about the spectacle. I’m not sure if I would have enjoyed this show as much on a large proscenium stage with a giant budget (I can only think what has been done in previous productions in regards to the scenes with the giant).
For those of you that have tried to sing a Stephen Sondheim musical before are familiar with the how difficult it can be, which is why the vocal prowess of the cast is so impressive. They navigate the songs with ease, and most importantly, nail the quick phrases with tongue twisting lyrics so the audience understands what is being sung. In such a well-cast show it is hard to single-out anyone, but I would like to mention a few performances. Bethany Thomas as The Witch steals every scene she is in, belting out her songs with confidence and verve, while being simultaneously hilarious and menacing. The song “Our Little World” sung between Ms. Thomas and Rapunzel (played by the lovely Jennifer Tjepkema) is one of the highlights of the show. Steve Best as The Baker has a strong voice and sympathetic nature about him. He is often hilarious, which makes the tough choices he faces throughout the play that much more heartbreaking. Scott J. Sumerak is wonderful as Jack, maintaining a child-like innocence and wonder (even if not everything is not right in his head). The relationship he establishes with the cow (a wonderful prop) is hilarious, but surprisingly heartwarming as well. Finally, I want to recognize Cameron Brune and William Travis Taylor as the princes. Even though these parts are inherently funny, these two play off each other so wonderfully with a sense of arrogance, charm, and brashness that their parts rise above being light, comedic moments. However, everyone in the cast is strong and should be very proud of the work they’ve done.
The North Theatre at the Theatre Building is often a tricky space to use because it is a ¾ thrust, but for the most part the set design of Ian Zywica tackles the problematic architecture with ease. My only concern is the projections on the half-moon screen because I was all the way to the right in the center, and often had trouble seeing the characters behind it or could not make out the projections. This was not a problem at all times, but I wonder if the people on the sides would be able to see the projections and the characters behind the screen. Musical Director Eugene Dizon and the small orchestra are wonderfully housed onstage in a little nook. I would like to applaud Mr. Dizon for making the music in the show so seamless and scaling down the large score to the point where it could be played by a handful of musicians. The costumes of William J. Morey are fantastic, true to the fairy tales, but with a hint of his own vision.
Those who love this show should not hesitate to see this production. I am not a huge musical theatre fan, and this may not have been my favorite musical, but that personal bias does not overshadow the wonderful work shown by the actors, design crew, musicians, and director. So if you like musicals, and especially if you like this show, get on down to Theatre Building Chicago to see this wonderful production done in such an intimate setting. The results are a “wish” come true.
At Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont Ave, Chicago, IL 60657. Tickets $38, Group, Senior, and Student Discounts available, Tickets purchased through box office at Theatre Building Chicago, Call 773-327-5252, or www.ticketmaster.com. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00PM, Sundays 2:30 PM, and starting May 1 Saturdays at 2:30 PM. Running time is approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes with intermission. Through May 30.
I have seen many productions of Into The Woods. I must say that Porchlight’s production had so much heart and wonderful voices that, with Eugen Dizon’s beautiful arrangements, the music soared into an enchanting evening of musical theatre. This production was polished, sell staged and truthful. Excellent use of multimedia design enhanced the mood. Director Stearns sure knows how to direct Sondheim.