A Muddled Shrubbery: INTO THE WOODS

Into the Woods; music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine, Nextdoor Theater Company, Nextdoor Center for the Arts, 3/9/12-3/24/12,

http://www.nextdoortheater.org/Nextdoor_Theater/THEATER_SHOWS.html.

Reviewed by Craig Idlebrook

(Winchester, MA) Be careful what you wish for.  No, wait. It’s a jungle out there.  No, wait.  No day but today.  No, wait.  Teach your children well.  No, wait.

Playwright Stephen Sondheim throws every theme in the book against the wall in Into the Woods, and the nextdoortheater cast does little to clarify his thoughts in this muddled production of his musical.  Poor vocal control, a claustrophobic set and a confused script combine to give the audience little more than a vague feeling of unease.

Into the Woods seems a play divided, with the first act acting like an ironic mashup of favorite fairy tales and the second more like a fairy-tale slasher film.  The characters of Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, Snow White and more intertwine as a witch and a narrator manipulate the action to bring the fairy tale characters into conflict.  Everyone is searching for that one missing piece that will make their lives complete, be it a royal ball, a prince or a baby.

In the second act, we find the same characters feeling ill at ease, as their fairy tale lives continue on and they learn happy endings aren’t always happy.  And then there’s the foot-stomping revenge of a giant, which provides the mortal danger to crystalize the thinking of many of the characters into figuring out what’s important in life.  It gets complicated.

Sondheim’s music is notoriously hard to pull off.  On a recent episode of NPR’s Fresh Air about the Broadway revival of the playwright’s Follies, actor Danny Burstein confesses that Sondheim’s music tends to zig when singers want to zag.  The surprises littered throughout the score only work when the singers can hit the intervals well.  In this production, the actors struggle through the quick-tempo music of the first act and often resort to a tense talking-singing style to keep up. As a result, we often miss the complicated points Sondheim has written into the music.  The sound quality of the theater doesn’t do the actors any favors, either; if the actors were miked, I certainly didn’t notice.

The cast does better with the sweeter and sillier songs in the second act, with Agony, a funny take on the joy of pursuing the unattainable, and Moments in the Woods, an ode to infidelity, standing out.  It would have been nice to see what this cast could have done with a slower and less complicated score, or at least some better sound amplification.

No cast member has the power to lift up this muddled production, although Angela Richardson (the Baker’s Wife) comes closest by doing less and infusing a Geena Davis-deadpan delivery to her character.  In general, however, the actors’ choices feel more like incomplete thoughts, which makes the characters lack definition.

The set design also seems lost in thought, wavering between purposely-cheap-looking walls, a random smattering of natural greenery and a modernistic wire take on vines.  But perhaps it just reflects Sondheim’s script, which is littered with possible endings and almost-insightful moments.  Even a giant bent on bloody revenge seems to waver the longer she is heard on-stage, and you just wish people would make up their minds.

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