Sunday, August 21, 2016

INTO THE WOODS at the Menier Chocolate Factory - Into the prop cupboard?

INTO THE WOODS is not only one of my favourite Sondheim shows but holds the distinction of being the first musical I saw on Broadway in 1988.  So what treats would my sixth production hold for me at the Menier?

Actually this is not a Menier production at all, it's an import from off-Broadway where the Fiasco Theater Company opened it in 2014.  It's USP is that the show is presented by a cast of ten plus a pianist in a production that brings a new high (or low) in minimalism: a bare stage is augmented by broken innards of pianos, 2 rows of vertical ropes at the back to suggest a wood, a table, a piano... and that's it.

The costumes seem vaguely Edwardian in varying degrees of cream - or maybe just dirty white - and various props are utilized to tell James Lapine's tale of what happens to various fairy tale characters on the other side of "Happily Ever After".

Ultimately I did enjoy the show - it's INTO THE WOODS after all - but time and again I bumped up against the 'poor' theatre techniques.  It took a long time for me to relax into the show, the minimalist approach just seemed to be a gimmick, I couldn't see why it was done but to draw attention to itself.  It certainly didn't seem to grow organically out of the work.  I think I have come to the end of my patience with 'reimagined' INTO THE WOODS productions.  I want the full nine yards next time... big frocks, picture book sets, magic effects, the full deal.

This production did without a narrator, the linking dialogue delivered by other cast members.  The recent film did this too - no doubt saying that it was too much of a theatrical device - but I think the show is the poorer for the character's exclusion, especially in the second act when the characters turn on him and sacrifice him to the Giant's Wife to appease her; the characters are really on their own then after that without the one person who knows how their stories end.

The US cast were all very energetic and could obviously turn their hand to anything but not all made a real mark.  Since the show opened three lead roles have been recast with UK actors and I was very happy that Harry Hepple is The Baker.  He gave a quietly lovely performance, he first caught my eye five years ago at the Menier as PIPPIN so it was nice to see him on that stage again. 

Another UK addition was Laura Tebbutt as The Baker's Wife and she also gave a fine performance and sang the character's 'big' song "Moments In The Woods" very well.  The character's demise after this is one of the plot's great moments.

Of the American performers I liked the tart Little Red Riding Hood of Emily Young but she overplayed the secondary character of Rapunzel, Vanessa Reseland was better as the sexy Witch rather than the ugly Witch, Patrick Mulryan was effective as Jack and Claire Karpen was excellent as Cinderella, it's a role that can get almost fade away in some productions but here she was a warmly sympathetic presence.

As I said, it took a long time to focus on the piece rather than the at-times childish trappings but by the second act the plot's more stripped-down action naturally made co-directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld drop the cutesy shenanigans and let the story work... needless to say by the end I had a tear in my eye as Sondheim's emotional score paid off.

Now, someone, a full-on production with an orchestra please?

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