Thursday, March 8, 2012

Luke's Reviews: Into the Woods

There have been people who have called Steven Sondheim a modern day Shakespeare.  Although I don't care much for Shakespeare, I find this comparison very accurate.  For Sondheim has brought himself to a level where simply attaching his name to a show insures it's success.  I can honestly say that there is not a single show of his that I know a lot about that I don't absolutely adore.  But of all his legendary masterpieces, I must say my favorite is Into The Woods.

That is why I've made it my life mission to see as many productions of Into the Woods as I possibly can.  I fully intend to see every performance I can of this masterful show and have a wall full of all the programs from the shows.  This is my third production to see live (in addition to the hundreds of times I've listened to the soundtrack or watched the movie), and although it wasn't the best, it was still fun.  So Here is my official review of Kell Highschool's production of Into the Woods:

WARNING:  This is a long one.  I go in detail to every single actor in the show, so maybe grab some popcorn or find your glasses for this one, because it won't be over in a hurry.

Although it's up to the cast to make or break a production, The production team is what takes a show from good to great and gives the show a push when things are going slowly.  The production team for Kell's production wasn't really award winning, but it didn't take away any.

  • THE SET -- Aside from the unparalleled brilliance of Sondheim's score, my favorite part of seeing Into the Woods is always the set.  I've seen everything from a forest made of books, to a giant tree house-like fantasy world.  Although this set wasn't quite as memorable as that, they did well.  They obviously put lots of time into all the many set pieces.  They had rolling platforms with trees and bushes covering the entire stage allowing the entrances and exits to have an extra flare (they were kind of underused during the actual scenes).  They had three cozy little rooms for the opening scenes of both acts which weren't spectacular, but served their purpose.  They also, like the original Broadway production, utilized a "mini scrim" in a tree to portray Cinderella's mother to pretty good effect, and had a pretty sturdy tower for the Rapunzel scene's and "No One Is Alone".  To me the highlight of the set was a giant book of fairy tales that the narrator opened at the beginning of the show and sat next to during the shows duration.  If ever I was bored by the production (which wasn't often) then I would look over at the book and admire the detail that went into it.  So all in all the set wasn't the best I've seen, because it was very safe and standard, but that sets the cast up in a nice comfortable position to have a wonderful show.
  • THE LIGHTING -- Nothing to report.  This is disappointing because the show has potential for some exciting lighting with quick scene changes, magic, earth shaking footsteps, dramatic death scenes, and one supernatural disappearance.  However, with the exception of the entire stage being lit, the single light for the scrim (mentioned earlier) and a moving spotlight for the Narrator, the lights never changed.
  • THE STAGING -- The staging was incredibly minimal.  Granted, Into the Woods isn't the kind of show that lends itself to a whole lot of choreography, but a little more might have been nice.  The director seemed to give directions for entrances and exits, and then the actors were kind of on their own on how to move about the stage (both in scene and song), which is ok, but some of the less experienced actors made a few uninformed decisions that I believe could've been prevented with some more specific blocking.
  • OTHER -- Costuming was pretty standard, but for characters like the Wolf, the Witch and (to an extent) Rapunzel, standard isn't easy, so it's still pretty impressive.  The Props were well crafted and added to the show.  The highlights included a cleverly made Milky White who actually (quite convincingly I might add) ate the objects and a couple of "wicked awesome" canes for the Witch.  The Audio team could have punched up the mics a little.  Of course, this was largely the fault of a few soft spoken cast members (I'll get to them in a sec), but it still had to be mentioned.  The Orchestra (despite their annoying warm ups before the show), played without a hitch.  They were occasionally a bit behind the singers at the beginning of the songs, but I expect that, once again, the actors must assume most of the responsibility for such occurrences.
Even after a show has been equipped with a magical score, a delightful script, and a functional set, it is up to the cast to make the connection with the audience.  I must say, there were times in the show when they really did draw me in, and other times when they seemed to be just going through the motions.  That is probably my biggest observation of the ensemble as a whole.  They were inconsistent. There were times when they were "blow-your-socks-off-outstanding" and other times when... well....lets just say at other times your socks definitely stayed on.  That's the ensemble, now onto the fun stuff:  The individual cast members.

  • Julia N. (Cinderella) - Like Mimi from RENT or Mrs. Von Tussle from Hairspray, Julia had the misfortune to be cast in a role that I don't particularly care for.  That being said, she did do a very good job.  Her singing was splendid, she hit all of the difficult soprano notes effortlessly, and did a great job blending her falsetto voice and normal voice (which is no easy task).  She (like many other members of the cast) occasionally aired towards the quite side and so many of her lines were lost on the audience (projection's important people), and there were times (specifically in "On the Steps of the Palace") where it was pretty obvious she didn't know what to do with herself (once again, I blame whoever blocked the show), but other than that she did a wonderful job.
  • Colin E. (Jack) - Jack is possibly my favorite character in the show, so I am occasionally a bit harsh on the people who play him, this is going to be one of those times.  I feel for Colin because I know first hand that Jack has some tough  songs to sing, but I really think that Colin may have been miscast.  The biggest thing was that he was just two quiet.  We were sitting in the second row and sometimes had to strain to hear him (and he was mic-ed).  When the songs began it wasn't uncommon for him to be drowned by the orchestra and his cast mates.  This was probably most exemplified in his big number "Giants in the Sky".  I got the feeling he hadn't done much theater, because he wasn't much in his character as he sang; he was pacing the stage and focusing on the individual notes (which we could barely hear anyway).  And then, somehow for some reason, the last note of the song (one of the hardest in the song) he hit with a power and volume that he never again matched the rest of the show.  I have no idea what got into him, but for some reason, he belted out that final word in a way that would've made the whole song spectacular if he could have had it from the beginning.  The singing aside, he delivered many of his lines well, but he tended to rush through a lot of them.  Don't get me wrong, he had his moments (including some very memorable scenes with Milky White), but so much of the brilliance of the character seemed to get lost.
  • Danny C. (Baker) - I must say, that as far as the principle cast goes, Danny was probably the highlight.  I didn't know what I thought of him at first, because he was really tall (towered over all the rest of the cast) and had a deep baritone voice that I didn't expect for the role of the baker.  And at the very beginning I was a bit worried about him being kind of awkward (not knowing what to do with hands, etc.)  but he really did a fantastic job.  There were several lines that he delivered so well that even if they were throw away lines in the original production, left the audience cracking up.  As the show went on (especially in the second half of act 2) he really started to shine (I think because the more dramatic character and music were more his niche) and his true potential got to shine.  This culminated at his stunningly beautiful rendition of No More (one of my favorite songs anyway) that absolutely took my breath away.  The emotion he had in the song was unparalleled by all the other productions I've seen (including a Broadway cast, highschool cast, and professional regional cast).  And again in No One Is Alone (I think the slower, more emotional songs were a strength of the entire cast) he really delivered a moving performance that helped to carry the second act.  If I were to have a criticism for Danny it would just be to be more consistent.  His powerhouse moments showed us that he had the potential (both dramatically and comically) but at times (especially in the beginning of each act) that potential didn't always shine through.  But all in all I was still really impressed.
  • Rachel D. (Baker's Wife) - Rachel had a lot to live up to because the Joana Gleason (the original Baker's Wife) was the only performer in the show to win a Tony for her performance and was always one of the strongest performers in the other versions I've seen.  That being the case she did do a really good job.  Like her stage husband, the beginning seemed a bit dead at times, but as the show progressed, you could see her improving as well (In lieu of this trend I wonder if perhaps they practiced Act II more than Act I).  Since the Baker's voice was so deep and booming, her voice was occasionally drowned out in the duets and group numbers, but her personality and acting certainly wasn't.  Her performance peaked (as it should) at her rendition of Moment's in the Woods.  This song (directly preceding all the depression) led the way into the strong portion of the show (every song from here on was fantastic).  She performed it with the energy and variety of emotion that the song really needs.  It really did take the show to the next level and usher in some wonderful moments.  Good job Rachel.
  • Melanie S. (Little Red Riding Hood) - Red has, historically speaking, been one of the funnest characters of the show.  There have been many super talented young ladies who have played it and it's a role filled with fun.  This worked to the advantage of Melanie.  As opposed to other actors who couldn't quite live up the their roles, I thought Melanie did a good (not great) job.  Of course, it should be noted, that doing a good job with Little Red Riding Hood is not easy, and incredibly funny, so she should be commended.  Melanie was one of the few cast members who I think might have been a bit stronger in Act I because when Act II hit she began to play the role as one less innocent and bubbly (her costume reflected this change rather dramatically).  This decision didn't take away from the show, but it did mean that some of the funnier lines (like "you did not Mr. liar!" and "You can talk to birds") weren't delivered to their full potential.  However, her singing voice was top notch and she stayed in character the entire time, so I'm really being a bit picky here.  Her song was spot on, and, with the exception of a few character choices that didn't work with me, she really did play the part very well.
  • Noelia F. (Witch) - No one in history ever has or ever will be able to sing like Bernadette Peters.  This is a fact.  That means that comparing anyone (even Meryl Streep who may be playing the role later this year) is unfair.  And most highschools have a tough time casting this particular role (even when hypothetically cast the show with my peers I can't usually find a good fit for the witch) so it follows that I wasn't quite blown away by Noelia.  Like the rest of the principle cast, towards the end of the show (i.e. Last Midnight & Witch's Lament) we could really see her stronger side.  That's not to say she wasn't good in the first act, but she did (like the majority of the cast) tend tend to mumble a bit and remain pretty quite so (as some of our friends in the back of the auditorium mentioned) she was a bit hard to hear (especially in the already hard to understand song Greens).  I was also slightly disappointed to see that a lot of my favorite lines from the movie (including two lines constantly quoted at our house: "Whatareyoudoing" and "WHO CARES?!!?!  THE COW IS GONE!  GET IT BACK!!")  weren't delivered to their full potential.  But every actor has to put their own spin on each character, and if this is how Noelia chose to do that then I respect it.  So, in conclusion (of the character...not the have a ways to go), she wasn't enough to carry the show, and wasn't as good as some of her cast mates, but she certainly did a really good job with the impossible role she was given.
  • Jolie S. (Narrator) - Now, the original Narrator (Thomas Aldridge) who was taken from us this past years (you may have seen his face on the Oscar "in memoriam" montage) made me love this character from the moment he spoke the opening lines of the show; and then the student I saw play the Narrator at Northview highschool I last year played the role even better and was by far the best performer of his production (among my favorite highschool performer I've seen).  So Jolie had a lot to live up to, and I was already a bit nervous about her...uh.... femininity.  And although she couldn't live up to her predecessors (don't feel bad Jolie I couldn't either), she did do an excellent job.  As she spoke her lines she seemed genuinely invested in what she was saying.  She did seem to kind of phase out when she was on stage not talking, but when you spend that much uninterrupted time watching (they left her onstage for the entire show), then that's to be expected.  Unfortunately, her biggest scene (one of my favorite in all of theater) where they discuss who to sacrifice to the giant, was staged completely wrong.  Everyone remained completely calm and the urgency and hilarity that should come with the scene was completely lost.  I blame this mostly on the director (or whoever blocked the scene) because one actor (or actress) couldn't really have changed it by themselves, but it was still a bit disappointing.
  • Landon B. (Rapunzel) - Don't's a girl.  Actually, I think I'll give Landon the award for best actress in the production (relative to her role)  I generally don't expect much from the character of Rapunzel (just because it's not really a main character) but she did a really good job.  All of her little "ahhaahahah" segments were spot on (and those take some breath support I might add) and her song with the Witch at the beginning of Act I (Our Little World) which didn't appear in the original Broadway production were a highlight of Act One.  In addition to her vocal performance her acting scene (she really only has one or two) were done really well.  She just kind of lit up the stage when she came on and I am very glad that she was in the cast.  So, thank you Landon.
  • Christian S. (Cinderella's Prince/Wolf) - Christian seemed to work backward from the rest of the cast. He was strong in the beginning (As the wolf and his first Prince scene or two) and seemed to actually slow down as the production wore on.  This is a shame, because Cinderella's prince has such potential for being a fantastic role (one of the most common characters to win a highschool award for supporting actor).  He wasn't bad, and the major lines like "When you're talking to your meal", "Worrying will do you no good" and "I was raised to be charming not sincere" he delivered well, but all in all he seemed a bit below par.  Especially in his scandalous scene with the Baker's wife (which wasn't completely his was also poorly staged) and his dramatic scene with Cinderella at the end (which kind of was his fault, he lacked energy).  Don't get me wrong, he didn't do that bad, but the part is so great and I know so many talented actors who have played or really want to play those roles, that I feel like he let the part down a bit.
  • Lafayette L. (Rapunzel's Prince) - First off, I have to mention.  This guy had fantastic hair.  Long flowing locks that I thought added to the larger than life aspect of the character.  As his princely brother, he had a huge role to live up to, but I feel like he did a better job.  He wasn't as clear in his diction or as big in his facial expressions as Chuck Wagner (the original) but he would add new physical motions that I've never seen before that made the character different, but also added a new, unexpected hilarity to the piece.  His singing wasn't great (and definitely couldn't match the booming voice of the original), but he seemed to have fairly good Chemistry with his "brother" and both of the Agony's, though they didn't live up to their full potential, were still some highlights of the show (specifically the original in Act I).
  • Abbey O., Mat K., Peyton P., & Abby P. (Stepmother, Cinderella's Father, Florinda, & Lucinda respectively) - I grouped Cinderella's family (except her real mom, who I'll talk about a little later) together because they always appear as a group.  They actually all did a really good job (a step up from the other highschool we saw).  They were good at projecting, their timing was spot on, and they played their characters well.  Most of them (especially he father) had very little to work with, but they made the most of it.  Abbey (the stepmother) specifically impressed me, they were all well cast.
  • Giovanni L.  (Mysterious Man) - If by chance I couldn't play Jack in a production of Into the Woods I would definitely lobby for the Mysterious Man, he gets many of the best lines, a great song at the end, and one of the quotes I use everywhere (check my facebook, e-mails, any "about me" I ever have to write) "When first I appear I seem mysterious, but when explained I'm nothing serious".  That's why It killed me that (next to Jack) Giovanni was probably the biggest let down of the cast (sorry to sound so mean).  Now, it's very possible that it's just my bias talking, because I haven't really liked any of the Mysterious Men I've seen (except for Thomas Aldridge's original of course) but it's still a bit depressing.  I mean, the entire cast had problems going too fast or not speaking loud enough, but his problem was just the opposite.  He was always speaking agonizingly slow and clomping, instead of scurrying, around the stage.  I suppose you could look at it as a "character choice" to play the role in a different way, but (to me at least) it really didn't work.  He also threatened to largely bring down the caliber of No More (thankfully, the Baker's brilliance and the fact that the song is largely separated helped).  And, if this is his first performance or something then I may be being a bit harsh, but this is exactly the kind of role I dream of, so it hurts me to see someone doing it so differently from the way I think it should be done.
  • Jackie R. (Jack's Mother/ Cinderella's mother) - Jackie is another fine example of the cast's inconsistency.  As Jack's mother, she mumbled, seemed a bit stiff and, though her accent added, struggled to be heard.  But then, for the few moments she played Cinderella's mother it was a whole new story.  She sung clearly with strong vibrato and honestly (in my opinion) did a better job with a harder role.  It's possible she was trying to add too much character to jack's mom (something that I've been known to do in many of my roles) and sacrificed some more practical necessities accidental, but it just seems kind of sad to see talent misused like that.  She two has a couple of rather iconic lines (such as "That's ok too" and the "ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhoooooooooooooooooooh" in the middle of act 2) which she didn't seem to play to their full potential.  So, I see that Jackie is talented because of her great moments, but her inconsistency hurt her here.
  • Kyle R. (Steward/Granny) - Now, obviously the first thing that'll come to mind after seeing this casting is "Granny's a man!" (*said in the same inflection as Bernadette Peter's "The Giant's a woman!!"*).  But it actually was really funny.  The only issue is that the audience was laughing so hard and he didn't wait for the laughter to die down so almost all of his granny lines were completely lost.  Of course, I knew them all, so it was still funny for me, but it would've been nice to get them out there.  But I was even more impressed with Kyle's portrayal of the Steward.  I never thought of the role of serving any kind of comedic value, but he somehow found a way to make every line he said funny.  He even gave a better deliverance of another often quoted line in our home "shut up old man" than the guy from the movie (Phillip something I think) which is no easy task.  So, all in all, the unexpected charm of the Steward and Rapunzel (especially in Act I while the principle cast was kind of warming up) helped to carry the show.  The only conflict came in One Midnight Gone where the Steward had a line directly after Granny.  They tried to make it work by having him come out in robe and wig and try to take it off mid line, but it really didn't work at all.  They corrected in The Finale by giving Granny's line to the Narrator (who doesn't appear in that song), and that minimized the awkward change a lot.
I know that was really long and (with the exception of a few of my more devoted readers), I probably lost most of you.  But if you have stuck with me through this entire thing then i solute you.  What you've learned is that I take Into the Woods very seriously (so if you have a production of it beware of inviting me because I WILL show up and I WILL have high expectations).  But, If you can look past all of my critical negativity, you will see that I did have a splendid night, because even an average cast performing Into the Woods is a wonderful experience for any theater goer.  If you ever get a chance to see any company performer I would implore you to jump at the opportunity, because it will change your life (or at least 3 hours of it).  Look forward to seeing more of my reviews over the comings months (I believe Zombie Prom, 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and hopefully Godspell are coming next) and be sure to listen to a Broadway song today!!

wow...that was lame.  I should really have a cool quote to end all of my posts with......if you have any ideas let me know in the comments below, and remember to vote on the poll to the top right of the page.  Thanks!

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