Friday, January 13, 2017

Innovative INTO THE WOODS examines “happily ever after” at Connor Palace

Contemporary musical theater and jazz, are two major contributions to the arts of the world that have come from the United States.  Originally filled with escapist reviews and song and dance shows, with no story or purpose other than to entertain, the American musical has evolved into a format to tell tales of importance (HAMILTON), highlight sociological and societal changes (HAIR) and make pleas for understanding (RENT).

Probably no composer/lyricist understands the affect that musical theatre can have more than Stephen Sondheim who has examined such themes as revenge (SWEENEY TODD) and actions on the course of history (ASSASSINS and PACIFIC OVERTURES).   Sondheim doesn’t write escapist works.  Even his hilarious A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM showcased the role of slavery and deception.

Sondheim is a master at telling tales with a spotlight on consequences.  INTO THE WOODS, a version of which is now on stage as part of the Key Bank Broadway series, which on the surface is a mash-up of fairy tales, has a strong warning of “be careful of what you wish for” and that one’s communication can affect others.

Awareness that the light-hearted entertainment in the first act, where we are introduced to Jack, of Beanstalk fame, Little Red Riding Hood (and the wolf), Cinderella (and her Prince Charming), and Rapunzel (she of long blond hair and her own Prince), all of whom get their wishes granted, can quickly do a flip-flop and roll out to have dire consequences.  At its core, INTO THE WOODS is about reality and the curse of wish fulfillment.

Reality is keyed by the song “No One Is Alone,” whose melodic theme runs throughout the score.  The words to the song remind us that we are intertwined with those around us and our actions affect them, and their actions affect us.  We are inextricably interconnected.  Once an action has taken place, blaming is irrelevant.  In the play, for example, Jack’s stealing the hen that lays golden eggs and the golden harp, and the presence of the giant, and later his wife, can’t be wiped out by an “I’m sorry.”  His actions have consequences as do the actions of the characters in the fairy tales.

Sondheim indicates that “We cannot act in isolation, nor should we want to for we can accomplish individually only a fraction of the things we can accomplish communally. Appreciate what you have, realize what you want, accept what you can't have, but discover what you are capable of.  It is only when we start accepting each other's faults and acknowledging each other's strengths, then we can join together to combat the giants that face us all.”

Viewers who go to see INTO THE WOODS thinking it is an escapist show will be surprised that it contains “anxiety, rage, anticipation, suspicion, denial and dread.”

This is not a show for children, unless time is going to be spent talking about implications of false “happily ever after endings.”

Though the first act ends with everyone’s wishes having come true, in Act II, all the sweet marzipan falls to pieces.  The giant’s wife goes on a killing spree, the princes cheat, the Baker and his wife blame and bicker, each character questions their original wishes and what they had to “sell” to get the desires to come true and eventually realize that in reality, few, if any, live happily ever after.

The show’s score, typical of Sondheim, is complex and compelling.  Songs, such as “Agony” and “It Takes Two,” are delightful.  “I Guess This is Goodbye” is emotion-provoking.   The powerful “Children Will Listen,” is one of the greatest musical theatre songs every written.  (Side note:  One needs little more to understand the power of the lyrics to that song than knowing that Sondheim’s mother wrote him a letter stating her only regret in life was giving birth to him.)

The Fiasco Theatre production is a creative, innovative, oft compelling version of INTO THE WOODS.  Those who have seen other productions or the movie version, will be surprised by actors playing musical instruments, the lack of lush orchestrations, a set consisting of ropes, crystal chandeliers, and piano sounding boards, and pure focus on the characters and their messages.

This is an inspired, artistic, resourceful production with a superlative cast.  Special spotlights must be shined on the beautiful Vanessa Reseland (the Witch), whose renditions of “Witches Lament” and “Last Midnight” were compelling.  Phillipe Arroyo was charming as the wide-eyed Jack and created a special moment with his rendition of “Giants in the Sky.”

Darick Pead displayed a wonderful flair for comic delight as Milky White and Rapunzel’s Prince.  “Agony,” a duet by Pead and Anthony Chatmon II (Cinderella’s Prince) was a production humor highlight.  Laurie Veldheer (Cinderella) enchanted with “On the Steps of the Palace.”

Derek McLane’s scenic design, Christopher Akerlind’s lighting, and Darron L West and Charles Coes’ sound design, all enhanced the production.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  The Fiasco Theater staging of INTO THE WOODS, part of the Key Bank Broadway series, is not a flashy production filled with special effects.  It is a visionary piece of directing excellence by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, who looked beyond the surface and came up with a concept which gave new life to an oft-produced play.  Will everyone like it?  No.  Those who live for escape, want conflict-free stories, who are tired of seeing yet another production of this script, and those who don’t appreciate Sondheim’s musical genius, may well be turned off.  The rest of us will revel in a magical evening of theatrical creativity.

Tickets for INTO THE WOODS, which runs through January 29, 2017, at the Connor Palace, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or by going to