October 8, 2008

‘Into the Woods’ May Baffle Those Unfamiliar With Tale

By Erica Hansen Deseret News

"INTO THE WOODS," Hale Centre Theatre, through Nov. 29 (801-984- 900); running time 2 hours, 50 minutes (one intermission)

Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods," the latest musical at Hale Centre Theatre, is a theater person's show. Reading through the bios in the playbill, you'll see what I mean -- many say this is their favorite.

And, based on the enormous turnout Hale had when it held auditions, it seems everyone wants to be in it.

Sondheim's Tony Award-winning musical is a look at well-known fairy tales: Cinderella, the Baker and his Wife, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, to name a few. And it's a look at happily ever after ... more importantly, what happens after happily ever after.

But as I looked around the theater during Monday night's performance, at an audience that seems a bit confused or dazed, it dawned on me: Theater people love the show because theater people know it.

Before you get upset, let me explain: The beauty and brilliance of "Into the Woods," in my opinion, is the words. The truly inspired, exquisite words; song after song, line after line. But, in Sondheim's music, which is often pitter-pattery and dissonant, those words aren't always presented clearly. And without the words, you lose the heart of the show.

For example, early in the show, the Witch, played nicely by Erin Royall Carlson, is telling how a spell was cast that started this whole snowball of a story but, in its sort of raplike fashion, becomes almost indecipherable.

There are other similar moments. Add to that actors trying to do character voices, different groups singing opposing lines, characters running through a very cramped "woods" -- since Hale's stage is so small -- and it can become a bit of a mess.

This isn't the fault of the actors or the director, Jennifer Hohl. It's just a vastly complex show, and its beautiful meaning is often buried and hard for casual theatergoers to access.

That said, the cast was great and, under the direction of music director Kelly DeHaan, fine-tuned the difficult Sondheim score and sang it with gusto.

The cast was vocally strong throughout. Especially nice were Amy Aston Gwilliam (Cinderella's mother), Ally Sweeney (Rapunzel) and Debra Weed Stewart (Cinderella), whose duet with the Baker (Jonathan Scott McBride) toward the end of the show was one of my favorite moments of the evening.

Allison Bennett (Little Red Riding Hood) and Paul Cartwright (Jack) nicely captured the youthful energy needed for their roles, and McBride's Baker had a nice tenderness. Although both Princes, Matt Dobson and Josh Richardson, had lovely voices, the audience seemed slow to warm up to the comic relief.

Hale's stage was mostly used well. A few set changes added extra dimension to an otherwise small forest. But I was distracted by the use of a rotating turntable throughout. Especially at the end as the Witch sings the important message of the show: "Careful the things you say, children will listen." Rather than having that be the focal point, the cast started rotating around the Witch, looking like a cake tier -- pulling focus with a noisy turntable covering the beautiful message.

If you like "Into the Woods," you'll probably like this production. Kacey Udy's set looks great; the costumes, co-designed by Suzanne Carling, Tamara Clayton, Peggy Willis and Leslie Warwood are lovely; and Spencer Brown's lighting gives a nice woodsy feel.

If you're not familiar with the show, do yourself a favor and take the time to do a little research. Read the liner notes, read lyrics online, get to know the show before you see it -- like theater people do -- so the magnificent message can fully register. You'll be glad you did.

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