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In addition to densely packed lyrics and intricate musical structures, the musicals of Stephen Sondheim are known for their specificity. “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” is set in a vaudeville version of ancient Rome. “Follies” rests in an about-to-be-torn-down theater. “A Little Night Music” in Sweden circa 1900. Unlike, say, Stephen Schwartz’ “Pippin” and “Godspell,” there’s not a lot of room to impose a directorial concept on them.
That’s not to say that some haven’t tried. We’ve had “Sweeney Todd” set in a sanitarium. “Merrily We Roll Along” with just stacks of music and a piano for a setting.
And now the Chicago-based producers The Hypocrites offer a radically different look at “Into the Woods" (running through March 30 at Mercury Theatre Chicago).
Well, maybe “radically” is too strong a word. For this production of Sondheim’s fairy-tale mash-up stays true to what Sondheim and book writer James Lapine put on paper.
(For newcomers: In an effort to undo a curse, a childless duo sets off into the unknown to find a series of objects outlined by the next-door witch. In the process, they not only get wrapped up in the stories of Cinderella, Jack (of beanstalk fame) and Little Red Riding Hood but also encounter the complexities of blame, responsibility, fidelity, desire vs. love, justifiable homicide, and more. In the second act, it’s certainly a combo of Grimm and grim.)
What The Hypocrites bring to the table this time is a playground esthetic and a condensation of the cast.
Apart from a slide that served as Rapunzel’s tower, a toy house serving as a shadow puppet theater for Wolf v. Granny, balloons subbing for trees, —and an actor’s transition from first-act sippy cup to second act beer bottle—the playground makeover gets in the way as often as it brings something fresh and interesting to the table. The doubling—and tripling and quadrupling—of roles sometimes adds antic fun, sometimes unnecessary clutter. I pity first-timer trying to sort out the difference between the Witch and Cinderalla’s mother/spirit (both Hillary Marren), for instance. Once characters start to die off (as happens with great frequency in Act II), some of the power is disipated because the actor remains. In this “Into the Woods,” rarely is anyone alone.
Thankfully, there’s an emotional truth anchored at the center of the show in the person of the Baker (Joel Ewing) whose loss and attempt to find a reason and the strength to regroup is palpable and very, very human.
I applaud the efforts of the entire cast in trying to find unique characterizations beyond the readings familiar from the Broadway production (which was recorded and is widely available). Hannah Dawe as a more-flirtatious-than-usual Little Red and Aubrey McGrath as an angst-ier Jack find nuances, both funny and moving, that I have not seen in other productions.
To a person, the cast sings beautifully while also drawing out the complex, sometimes contradictory emotions behind the tunes. And a five-person off-stage orchestra was a credit to Sondheim’s music.
Even with its flaws, The Hypocrites' "Into the Woods left me yearning to see more from the company. And yearning for an Indianapolis troupe that would take such a fresh, risk-taking, yet respectful look at great musicals. What would happen if our own No Exit Performance or Q Artistry took a shot at something in the canon?