When The Hypocrites bound ‘Into the Woods,’ something special blooms from almost nothing
Review: “Into the Woods,” music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, produced by The Hypocrites at Mercury Theatre, through April 5. ★★★★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson
From paper and string and other found objects — in the hands of a wonderfully talented cast and a whiz of a director — The Hypocrites theater company has cobbled together a magical production of Stephen Sondheim’s fairytale mash-up musical “Into the Woods.”
A sort of existential remix of childhood parables like “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Rapunzel,” the tumultuous comedy and painful sobriety of “Into the Woods” (1986) reveal Sondheim the lyricist at his most trenchant and sly and Sondheim the composer at his most sparkling. If the combination is irresistible, delivering the goods poses quite a challenge, in part because the vocal demands are formidable for a large cast but also because the work is virtually two shows: the first act a frolicsome interlacing of sundry fairytales and the second act a deconstruction of the fulfilled hopes and dreams of those commingled characters.
Sondheim’s “woods” is a place of both illusion and stark reality, the playground and proving ground of life itself. It’s a retreat from the daily grind and personal accountability, an enchanted place where wondrous moments can happen. But it’s also a crucible where moral strength and resilience are tested.
What “Into the Woods” must be first of all is charming; the shadows fall later. And The Hypocrites’ lovely production exudes charm – on a set devised by William Boles where strung balloons represent the enveloping woods, a child’s slide serves as the tower where Rapunzel is kept by a witch and a small house-shaped shadow box provides the frame for the sad fate of Red Riding Hood’s granny.
A few suggestive props and bits of costume (Sally Dolembo turning scraps into story pieces) help tell the tale as a cast of 10 actors – honed by director Geoff Button to pitch of vibrant spontaneity — slip in and out of multiple roles with an unflagging air of purpose. Only too happily does the viewer suspend disbelief. Indeed, who could remain indifferent to the central plight of the Baker (the droll, patient Joel Ewing) and his Wife (the yearning, vulnerable Allison Hendrix), who want nothing more than to have a child of their own.
Hillary Marren nearly steals the show as the Witch with an attitude, who lives next door and seems to hold the key to the couple’s dream. A young actor with a well-schooled voice, Marren morphs into the Witch (one of her several roles) with a hysterically nasty flair and provides one of the night’s best moments with her vexed patter song about the time an intruder ruined her garden, rutabaga and all.
Good voices are everywhere. Sarah Bockel, in the dual assignment of Rapunzel and Cinderella, turns the songs of both characters into a series of vocal highlights. Able singing and fine comic sense converge in the performances of Will Skrip as Prince Charming and Michael Brown as Rapunzel’s Prince. Their duet of shared disaffection, “Agony,” is a vocal splendor and a comic killer. Aubrey McGrath adds another solid voice as the melancholy Jack, who can’t bear to part with his beloved cow — and doesn’t care beans about money.
Kate Harris is mom times two – worrisome and nudging as Jack’s mother, delightful caricature as Cinderella’s haughty step-mother. As narrator and advising wood-spirit (with a touch of Greek chorus), Blake Montgomery further hones the show’s comic edge.
The trick of “Into the Woods” is giving wings to the more serious, yet also darkly funny, drama of Act II. It is amid this epidemic of personal misery that director Button makes his real mark. Here the cast breaks from earlier farce to become characters struggling with punctured dreams and disillusionment, but who rally together in the face of a greater concern – indeed, a common enemy, a Giant that threatens their entire way of life, Prince and everyman alike. To the shared credit of Button and music director Matt Deitchman, the turning events only draw the viewer deeper into the woods.
Kudos also to the smart little instrumental ensemble, installed above the rear of the stage and led by Deitchman, precisely and stylishly, from the piano: Just one more happy bit in a show that spins enchantment from wisps and wit.
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreinChicago.com
Tags: Allison Hendrix, Aubrey McGrath, Blake Montgomery, Geoff Button, Hillary Marren, Into the Woods, Joel Ewing, Kate Harris, Mercury Theatre, Sally Dolembo, Sarah Bockel, Stephen Sondheim, The Hypocrites, Will Skrip, William Boles