Almost thirty years since it first appeared on Broadway, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into The Woods is a timeless piece that has easily established itself as a classic within the contemporary American musical theatre canon. It is also damn tough to pull off successfully. And while the enthusiastic folk at Fighting Chance Productions give it their all in this latest incarnation on a Vancouver stage, they fall prey at times to a complex show of both story and music.
One of the first in what seems a continually growing list of fractured fairy tales, there is a reason that Into The Woods continues to endure; for at times it is downright clever in telling its mash-up of Brothers Grimm stories. But its cleverness is rarely played with a wink and a nod, preferring a more sophisticated approach that can be hugely satisfying. Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel and Cinderella are all put inside the Sondheim/Lapine blender and served alongside the story of a baker and his wife on a quest to break free of a witch’s curse.
With a story as dense no doubt as some of the Baker’s own goods, Into The Woods demands an unprecedented clarity in this (sometimes literally) giant of a show. With music and lyrics that are a challenge for even the most seasoned professional, it becomes a theatrical imperative that the show comes out of the gate with a razor sharp focus. Problem is, and perhaps somewhat surprisingly since this show’s second act is a bit of a downer, this community theatre production on stage at the Jericho Arts Centre doesn’t really find its footing until after intermission.
Under the direction of Ryan Mooney, this production is all over the place. Its in-the-round staging at times creates a tennis match as the focus moves from character to character, and is particularly problematic in the opening number which sets the stage for most everything that will come. There is so much going on at times that it is impossible to know where that focus should be, resulting in a sometimes muddled feel that we’re somehow missing out on something really important.
Despite its problems, there are some wonderful performances. Real life husband and wife Christopher King and Jennifer Suratos take on the roles of the Baker and the Baker’s Wife with skill. The glue that holds the show together, the duo are believable and have two of the best voices of the night. Suratos’ “Moments in the Woods” late in act two is both heartfelt and heartbreaking.
Also on point is Jason Cook who plays double duty as the Big Bad Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince. Devilishly smarmy as the Wolf, Cook twists that persona with equally delightful results as the “charming” Prince. Cook’s baritone voice is smooth.
With an off-stage performance as the Giant, Linzi Voth’s computer-altered voice manages to do what was missing at times on stage: the ability to fully draw focus. And talk about commitment to a role; behind the goofy mask and equally goofy costume, Ryan Lino is both fearless and successful as Jack’s best friend, Milky White the cow.
As an ensemble, the cast shows its strength in the larger numbers, unfortunately though Sondheim and Lapine only give them a couple of opportunities to shine as a group.
Some of the design elements are as equally ambitious as the show itself. While the use of pop-up books may not be entirely original, they are a nice addition even while they may not be fully realized. The use of pyrotechnics is effective, although given the intimate venue, the Witch’s spells lack a certain element of surprise.
(I was admonished during director Mooney’s greeting on opening night about my gripe about sound issues. An ongoing problem for this company, while what must be a difficult task with undoubtedly very slim budgets, when your raison d’être is musicals, sound must be priority one. Opening night had its share of feedback, lost vocals and other sound issues.)
The small five piece orchestra under the direction of Angus Kellett is spot-on, easily maneuvering through Sondheim’s difficult score.
It may not be perfect, but one cannot ignore the opportunities that a company like Fighting Chance gives to both actors and audience with a show like Into The Woods. Always ambitious, this company has become an outlet for community players and new theatre graduates to hone their skills. Mix in the occasional professional, and while they don’t always get it right, it sure can be fun to watch.
Into The Woods with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine. Directed by Ryan Mooney. A Fighting Chance Productions presentation in association with Renegade Arts Company. On stage at the Jericho Arts Centre (1675 Discovery St, Vancouver) until May 16. Tickets are available online at Tickets Tonight. Visit http://fightingchanceproductions.ca for more information.