BWW Reviews: 3-D Theatricals Goes INTO THE WOODS
Stephen Sondheim's lyrics and James Lapine's book are so brilliantly profound in INTO THE WOODS that, when in doubt, the best thing an actor can do is simply make sure the audience can hear the words. 3-D Theatricals struggles with this basic tenet in its gorgeously appointed though unmanageably large production. It's a case of Plummer Auditorium's cavernous stage and a 15-piece orchestra (sounding terrific under the baton of musical director Julie Lamoureux) completely upstaging the action, which is also troubled by a complicated set that doesn't always cooperate with its handlers.
Not that it isn't gorgeous. The scenic design by Tom Buderwitz is a revolving storybook wonder full of gnarly trees and fantasy accents but it moves - or doesn't - with a mind of its own. A large section of the set crashed into the wings more than once as it moved offstage; trees had to be repositioned manually after scenes were already underway; and most unfortunate of all, the loud mechanical sound of a lift resetting so the witch could exit after disappearing center stage could be heard during one of the quietest scenes.
Jean-Yves Tessier's always creative lighting design supplied some beautiful color changes throughout the night but the downstage lighting, combined with wigs and hats and many of the actors' tendency to act in profile, often left their faces in shadow. When you add questionable diction to the mix and an imbalance in the sound design that was impossible to ignore, audience members unfamiliar with this heartbreaking musical are sure to miss the subtleties. They will still have the benefit of Sondheim's soaring melodies but the deeper meanings will fly by.
As if to compensate, performances were broad but not necessarily grounded. Bigger doesn't mean funnier and if you let the words do the work, stand still when you're delivering the punchline, and don't act like you've just said something funny, 9 times out of 10 the audience will laugh. Or they'll experience the dramatic turn in the action at the same moment as the character if that moment is allowed to register honestly.
When director T.J. Dawson and the cast get it right they have the ability to disarm all skeptics and completely win our hearts. It is these moments within the production that resonate with clarity and succeed in overcoming its technical challenges.
In Jeff Skowron's (The Baker) gut-wrenching version of "No More" we see how he, more than any other character, is changed by the entanglements in the woods. When he makes his final decision near the end of the musical, the cost of the journey is etched on his face and a deeper understanding of the lessons he has learned remains. With tears streaming down his face, Skowron makes the powerful transition connect with the audience by letting us see the Baker's unfailing humanity. Once again it is beautiful work by an actor you should take every opportunity to see whenever you can.
Viva Carr as the Baker's Wife, gives us a determined woman, constantly self-aware, who still has dreams that comically slip out before being curtailed by her more practical nature. Jeannette Dawson, in the plum role of Cinderella, contrasts humor with innocence to create a lovely portrait of an unhappily-ever-after princess in search of a better story. Her transition to maturity adds a rich texture that steadies the ensemble and, much like Skowron, helps the audience see the kind of impact we have on every other person we meet.
Bets Malone has been taking on more character roles as of late and she is almost unrecognizable in this production as the Witch. Her transformation is especially effective in Act I where she is not only decked out in full witch rags - wig, warts and all - but her singing voice takes on a guttural quality that makes her unrecognizable vocally as well. Though her overall performance feels a bit scattered, she also brings an emotional intensity to the legato lines in "Stay With Me" and "Last Midnight" that is quite moving.
3-D Theatricals' ambitious production, though challenged, is still well-worth the drive to Fullerton. Many of the technical aspects will surely have been rectified for the coming weekend's schedule and performances should also settle in as the actors begin to feel more secure. It is an extravagant world they have created...but I still want to be able to simply hear the words.
INTO THE WOODS
May 2 - 18, 2014
201 E Chapman Ave
Fullerton, CA 92832
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Photo credit: Isaac James Creative