Last night I had the pleasure of attending the final dress rehearsal for Palo Alto’s Theatre Works’ performance of Into the Woods. It was a thoroughly professional, impressive, and magical performance and if you’re in (or can get to) the Bay Area, I urge you to get tickets for it right now.
Let it be known up front that I’m a huge fan of Into the Woods. I own the CD and DVD, I’ve accompanied many a singer with ITW pieces for auditions, and I’ve previously attended a live production of the show (albeit not on Broadway).
Therefore, as you might imagine, I attended this performance at Theatre Works with an eager but cautious mindset. Not only was it a dress rehearsal (not even a preview, much less an actual paid-for performance), but this was also “regional theatre.” As someone who has done regional theatre in the past, not to mention attended a ton of regional theatre performances, I’ve come to temper my expectations to prepare myself for oft-lackluster albeit sincere and enthusiastic orchestras, costuming, choreography, singing, and so on.
Boy, was I in for a surprise with this show, which was pretty much professional caliber! I should have gotten a hint early on when, in perusing my program, I noticed that the bulk of the actors are members of the Actors’ Equity Association… folks *serious* about theatre.
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I barely noticed the orchestra except when concentrating on them — which, for a musical, is how it should be IMHO (and mind you, I was an orchestra conductor for a regional theatre once upon a time :-D). The balance within the orchestra and between the orchestra and cast was admirable, as was its connection with the singers in tempo and feel.
The lighting, costuming, and — wow! — the sets… all fantastic. In fact, after seeing the Broadway production on DVD, I was particularly floored at how much was done here with the sets… engaging but not obtrusive or distracting. Plus, a live “cow” — very different than the original production, but a clever (and oft-hilarious) touch!
Okay, Adam, but how about the ACTING AND SINGING, eh?
Well, I was quite impressed there, too. In particular, I found that the princes — while certainly assisted by the humorous book — were especially adept at their comedic roles. The Baker’s Wife was another standout, IMHO… with a fabulous ability to provoke sympathy, laughter, indignation… the whole spectrum. In general, the entire cast showcased strong acting and singing talents, though I was a bit less impressed with the singing abilities of Jack’s mom.
Additionally, I did feel that the witch was slightly less proficient at enunciating than other leads, and — when comparing her to the distinctive (original witch) Bernadette Peters — her acting and singing dynamics seem a tiny bit dwarfed.
And speaking of enunciation issues: while my friends (who weren’t familiar with the musical) and I found the lyrics to be sung generally cleanly and clearly overall, I did feel that some of the ensemble numbers (actually few and far between in this musical) were a bit muddled… likely due to mic/balance issues (quite possibly to be cured by actual performance time), but also possibly due in part to a lack of exactness/sharpness/togetherness in enunciation. More critically, I was unable to understand almost anything boomed by the giant.
Aside from the above issues concerning spoken/sung clarity, I do have a few of other nitpicks:
– Jack’s Mother’s ear-pulling grew annoying in its repetitiveness.
– Ditto for the witches ‘pain boom’ or whatever it’s officially called. Additionally, this was the only special effect I can recall that felt hokey in the production, and is one of those things that likely would have been more powerful without any visible effects at all.
– I’d like to see a bit more expressiveness and depth from the narrator. The narrator of this production is certainly fine, but seems to lack some of the gravity and punch of the one I had grown used to in the professional recordings.
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A warning to prospective attendees: This show is long (around 3 hours, including a brief intermission). It’s also *NOT* for young children. Yes, it involves fairy tales. No, there’s no blood or foul language or explicit sexuality. But it tackles very adult themes… love, death, fidelity, morality, loneliness, parenting, and so on, and in a way that often requires concerted listening and patience.
This show, however, is a wonderful affair for the rest of us. While not providing a Disney’esque happy ending, it should deftly entertain, amuse, and charm anyone with heart. No live helicopters, no Elton John ballads… just an intricate, thoughtful, and engaging book and score — and thankfully a cast and crew that does the work justice.
Bring tissues, and bring a friend. This is a show you’ll feel good about loving :-).