Review: “Into The Woods”

SLIGHTLY RECOMMENDED

Where: The Hypocrites at the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Ave.
When: through March 30
Tickets: $22-$59

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

If you’re only vaguely familiar with Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine’s (book) “Into The Woods,” The Hypocrites’ production will serve as a reminder of how brilliantly the 1987 musical captures the pangs of uncertainty and pains of living using the framework of fractured fairy tales. But if you know and love the show, you’re likely to find this re-conceptualization misguided and its realization disappointing.

Rather than relying on the inherent metaphor of the woods to represent the risks and rewards of the unknown, director Geoff Button and his team have come up with the conceit of a playground or playroom, I’m not sure which. William Boles’ scenic design includes everything from a slide to chalkboards with childlike drawings, as well as a dollhouse or two. Floor-to-ceiling bungee cords of colorful balloons stand in for the trees, so it’s impossible for them to seem mysterious or become menacing, as the second act in particular requires. The special effects are a bust for a variety of reasons. Sally Dolembo’s unflattering costumes consist of casual pants and tops to which the cast members add capes, hats, tutus, and such plucked from dress-up trunks to assume their multiple roles.

Although Matt Deitchman’s musical direction is decent, and some of the singers are talented, on opening night it was hard to understand many of the lyrics (which is too, too bad because they’re so good), and there was too much screeching. In addition, Katie Spelman’s choreography often comes across as chaotic.

Worst of all, the director and actors can’t seem to find a workable tone, nor do they adequately distinguish between the happy-ever-after outlook of the first act and the soul-crushing reality of the second. Their impulse, presumably to emphasize the humor, is to ham it up, which is a mistake. The power of the piece to move us depends on the characters taking themselves and their predicaments seriously, with the survivors emerging sadder but wiser from their experiences. Only a few manage to do this at all, among them Sarah Bockel as both Cinderella and Rapunzel, Joel Ewing as the not-too-bright Baker, and Allison Hendrix as the sharper (in every way) Baker’s Wife. Ewing and Hendix also have the acrimony of the married couple’s arguments down pat.

I wish I could say that Hillary Marren does the key role of the Witch justice, but such is not the case. First thing she should do is ditch the fake witchy voice and concentrate on being comprehensible. Hannah Dawe’s Little Red also sounds like she has a speech impediment or is doing a bad impression of a little girl. As for the men, Aubrey McGrath’s Jack benefits from likability if little else, while neither Rapunzel’s prince, Michael Brown, nor Cinderella’s, Will Skrip, completely win my heart, though Skrip has some fun as the Wolf. Blake Montgomery is a rather bland Narrator, and I haven’t a clue why his Mysterious Man is dressed up as a clown—except, maybe because people either love ‘em or hate ‘em.