Into the Woods: where a clockwork forest unlocks sexual desire
by Drew Rowsome - Photos by Scott Gorman
Hart House Theatre is attempting a very ambitious production of the Sondheim warhorse Into the Woods, and the hard-working cast and crew almost achieve the spectacle with depth that they are aiming for. It is unfair to review the show at this point as, "due to a very substantial technical disruption," what I saw was a dress rehearsal rather than the planned opening night. For a dress rehearsal there were no discernible problems with the first act aside from miking problems, and if not been warned of the evening's altered status, the results would still have been impressive. Technical glitches did hinder the second act and, as it is historically already a problematic part of the show, the entire evening suffered. Once those are fixed, and I'm sure that the crew is working feverishly to do so, Into the Woods should be a stellar achievement.
The Hart House stage has been transformed into a giant cuckoo clock. Aside from being a clever comment on the meticulous clockwork intricacy of Sondheim's score and harmonies, it gives a unique edge to the themes of fate vs free will, and the consequences of being selfish vs working for the common good. The Narrator/Mysterious Man (Bradley Hoover) strolls onstage carrying a small model of the stage and proceeds to become a sort of puppet master, moving the various characters on and off stage. As with an elaborate cuckoo clock, there are numerous doors and windows that characters pop in and out of. It is a clever concept.
The comic lines are nicely emphasized which the audience adored, they were there to see a musical dammit, and that created an even darker-hued second half. There is however a strange ambiguity to the sexuality that throbs through the show - The Baker's Wife, a sweet-voiced and endearing Amy Swift, literally sings that the phrase "into the woods" translates as exploring one's carnal desires - with Red Riding Hood (a spunky Sarite Harris) playing her sexual awakening for laughs, but the Princes turning "Agony" into an ode to repressed mutual desire. Chiano Panth makes a very handsome prince full of athletic tumbling and barely contained pansexual lust; one understands how Rapunzel (Alexandra Reed showing a totally different side of her vocal abilities from Sweeney Todd and The Mystery of Edwin Drood) dares to cross a witch and venture into the dangerous world she has been warned about.
The cast all have strong voices that are up to the demands of Sondheim's score. Michelle Nash (Mary Poppins, Hairspray, The Sound of Music) is a warm and empathetic Cinderella, and her rich tones sell a ballad-weary audience with a gorgeous rendition of "No One is Alone." James King blossoms from emasculated Baker (this production is obsessed with doing damage to the poor man's testicles) to full-throated heroic tenor. And the exuberant wonder and ringing tones that Colin Asuncion brings to "Giants in the Sky" is a highlight.
Korin Thomas-Smith as the Wolf is hampered by an immobile mask that curbs his lasciviousness (though his sinuous movements, especially mobile hips and Fosse paws, turn him from a furry into a less cartoonish fantasy. In contrast, Milky White the cow is brought to realistic unreal life by Maksym Shkvorets and steals every scene she is in. Saphire Demitro projects personality through a mask and is a delight to watch once freed from her witchy constraints, however the constraints of the music make the moments her voice glows and swells a tease.
In a world where projections can evoke any vista or starkness can be a prod to the imagination, it is somehow charming to see a production attempt a solid representation of an impossible world. And when the clockwork trees roll across the stage there is serious magic afoot. Once the glitches are ironed out and the cast can trust that the mechanical aspects will move as intended, Into the Woods should be a seriously moving and entertaining journey to take.