BWW Review: The St. Petersburg Opera Company Presents Stephen Sondheim's INTO THE WOODS at the Palladium
"This is not the time to be soft-hearted..." --The Witch in INTO THE WOODS
To mic or not to mic? That is the question.
In the recent St. Petersburg Opera Company's production of the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine classic musical, INTO THE WOODS, the actors do not utilize microphones; this ultimately makes it very difficult to hear many of Sondheim's brilliant lyrics and rhymes. I did not have this issue with the other SPOC summer musicals that I had experienced (and enjoyed) in the past--the well-directed West Side Story and Putting It Together as well as last year's meaningful South Pacific, none of which used microphones. But with INTO THE WOODS, the lack of mics was quite apparent. You find yourself having to lean in to hear, or try to understand something, perhaps even a certain word or phrase, and you keep wondering why this has to be. I know that it must be offensive for opera singers to have to rely on microphones, but INTO THE WOODS is not opera, it's musical theatre. And if the majority of the cast is not projecting or enunciating properly, then there is a problem. If that's not enough, the actors are performing in the Palladium, a large venue, and the orchestra's volume is quite loud, amped to a level "11" on the This Is Spinal Tap scale. It behooves the production to do whatever it takes to make sure the actors are showcased in the best way possible. Microphones surely would have helped.
That said, even if mics had been used, this production has several head-scratching issues that didn't gel.
I'm all for reimagining Sondheim, and despite the protests of purists, the popular INTO THE WOODS, his Freudian take on famous fairy tales, is perfect fodder for reinterpretation. Just a few years back, freeFall did a grand job of it, setting the story in a psychiatrist's office and having the Princes play not just twin wolves but also Cinderella's stepsisters. I saw a version not long after that where the Narrator was actually a family that split the narrating duties amongst the four of them; they faced their own loss at the same time the fairy tale characters also suffered tragedy. So I love a new look at a work that I have seen way too often.
But this was different. What do you make of a person in a hen mask, running around the stage, arms flapping, resembling Admiral Ackbar from Return of the Jedi? Or two ladies, donned in yellow skirts, wearing giant bird heads, looking like something out of a surrealist painting? Jack's cow, Milky White, is played by a man in a cow mask, donning white pants and shirt, standing erect. At one point in the show, the actor removes his mask to show that the cow has died, and believe it or not, this sounds better than it looked. The stepsisters go blind near the end of Act 1 and put on Goofy Droopy sunglasses from a Dollar Tree-like store where the prop master must have spent a fortune.
Sometimes I felt that the direction (by Raymond Zilberberg) tried too hard to make the work seem new, but ultimately it fell short. I love adventurous direction, but here it seemed like he didn't know when to stop. He's obviously quite smart and imaginative, but what was he going for? What was the end result? Many of his choices seemed to undermine and perhaps even mar the story, like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa without Marcel Duchamp's irony. It sometimes verged on being in the "So Bad It's Good" department, like watching "Red, Hot & Blaine" in Waiting for Guffman.
How did some scenes get to this stage without someone's intervention during the rehearsal process? Who saw Jack fondling the harp (played by Heather Green) and thought, "This is a great idea"? The show already has its Freudian undercurrents built in, but the director must have wanted to take it as far as possible without apparent reason. He obviously overreached.
Even with these ill-advised moments, there are several things in this INTO THE WOODS to offer. Talent always shines through. Tara Curtis, in the pivotal role of the Witch, is mesmerizing and absolutely nails her songs "Stay with Me" and (especially) "Last Midnight." Her final big hurrah, joined by the cast, is "Children Will Listen," and it was glorious; I just wish the entire show sounded this strong.
Paula Broadwater, as Jack's mother, is a hoot and blasts the stage with energy whenever she enters. Clayton Brown as the Baker, who like Broadwater was very effective in Sondheim's Putting It Together years ago, is also wonderful and sensitive. You feel for him, and his "No More" and "No One Is Alone" were both stellar and heartbreaking. Caroline Tye, as The Baker's Wife, is fine but seems to recede into the background. Still, her "Moments in the Woods" was stunning.
The story's Narrator is played by the likable Melissa Misener, and her telling the tale to a baby in a carriage is one of the few new angles that I actually appreciated.
Keely Borland as Rapunzel possesses a lovely voice and plays her screaming Act 2 fear quite well. I had trouble hearing Jack (Justin Berkowitz) and his "Giants in the Sky," one of the best songs in the show, suffered. Sometimes I also had difficulty deciphering the dialogue of Little Red Ridinghood (Caitlin Mesiano), who sounded like Thelma Ritter on helium.
My pick for Best in the Cast belongs to Lucas Levy as Rapunzel's Prince. Not only does he always remain in character, but he can be heard both in his acting and his singing. He's a joy to watch. Kevin Grace is also quite good as Cinderella's Prince; his duet with Lucas ("Agony") was hilariously off the charts in the fondling department. And Grace makes for a memorable Big Bad Wolf (without the aid of a wolf mask, just hair extensions); his Wolf resembled a dark-haired BOB, the long-locked evil spirit from Twin Peaks.
And then there's the orchestra. Yes, it was overpowering, but they sounded marvelous, thanks to the always superior maestro, Mark Sforzini, who is also the artistic director of the St. Petersburg Opera Company. Kudos to the entire group: concertmaster Sarah Spellman, Nancy Chang, Eric Nordstrom and Jeffrey Smick on violin; Warren Powell and Karen Dumke on viola; Nadine Trudel on cello; Dee Moses on bass; Clay Ellerbrook on flute; Stacey McColley on clarinet; Maurnturini on bassoon; Larry Sollowey and Juliann Welch on the horn; RoBert Smith on trumpet; Kelsey Bannon on percussion; and Maestro Sforzini on the synthesizer/keyboards.
The sound effects were put to good use, including a baby crying, a giant's footsteps and even a toilet flushing (don't ask). Keith Arsenault, one of the area's finest lighting designers, continues to impress with his evocative work here. However, the effects behind some of INTO THE WOOD's bigger moments, like the Witch's transformation and Milky White's reincarnation, were sorely lacking.
Brian Dudkiewicz's set is splendid in a minimalistic way. And the bare tree that was plopped in the center of it all was quite grandiose, towering, taking up most of the stage. It resembled something you'd find in Miss Havisham's yard, with its imposing branches swiveling like Medusa snakes.
With these positive aspects of the production, I just wish the show didn't have so many downsides.
INTO THE WOODS is hands down Sondheim's most popular musical, and this production was almost sold out for the performance that I saw. After intermission, there were several empty seats around me; I hadn't seen so many people flee a show halfway through since the ballsy Mr. Burns at freeFall (for decidedly different reasons). But the show also garnered a rousing standing ovation from the audience afterwards. I overheard one older woman say, "I have seen INTO THE WOODS four times, including the original on Broadway, and this was the best of them." I was surprised to hear that, especially after witnessing a production I thought so seemingly misguided. I guess it proves that art really is in the eye of the beholder; one man's Plan 9 from Outer Space may be another person's Citizen Kane.
There are three more chances to see SPOC's INTO THE WOODS at the Palladium: July 7 at 7:30 pm, July 8 at 7:30 pm and July 9 at 2:00 pm.