“If the End Is Right, It Justifies…the Beans.”
Carrnivale Theatrics is putting on a great performance of Stephen Sondheim’s INTO THE WOODS right now. I’ll get to it.
Showtunes. An alien world to me, or at least they were, as the saying goes, “once upon a time.”
“Near may be better than far, but it still isn’t here.”
I have been a music freak all my life. People don’t display their music collections anymore, not in these days of downloads and mp3’s, but it used to be that if you were to invite me into your home, if I saw a music collection, I would head straight for it and instantly form an implacable judgment of you based entirely on your taste in music.
“None would run from us….Yet one has.”
I spent several of my younger years living in a several communal situations, giving me endless opportunities to form snap musical judgments. For a variety of irrelevant reasons, however, it took me a while to have much to do with the greasepaint crowd, but then this one new guy moved in, with box after box of… showtunes.
“No knot unties itself.”
I was utterly baffled. Who the hell listens to THIS stuff? I had known Deadheads. I had known metalheads. I had known progheads. I had known classical snobs and jazz players. I knew that there were such things as musicals—I had been in the Spring Musical myself in high school and had later worked on the lighting crew of eighteen interminable performances of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, but it had never occurred to me that there were people in the world who actually listened to… showtunes… when they didn’t have to.
“They say that’s he’s charming.”
Well, this new guy did, anyway—it turned that he worked a day job to feed himself and pay his rent and acted and sang when he had the time and opportunity. Needless to say, over the ensuing fifteen months that he and I shared an address, as a procession of other frequently unforgettable characters came and went, he showed me how to see life from a more theatrical point of view. (The best way to deal with some people? Treat them as if they are fictional. That wasn’t his line, but he did love it.) Needless to say, I heard a lot of showtunes during that stretch of time, either emanating from his bedroom with him singing along (usually to a specific part), or sometimes from my room, where the communal stereo was, as he gradually wore me down.
“I was raised to be charming, not sincere.”
Why is he telling me all this?
“Some of us don’t like the way you’ve been telling it.”
As an especially fanatical Stephen Sondheim disciple, he acquired a videotape of INTO THE WOODS, the Broadway cast, with Bernadette Peters playing the Wicked Witch. I had on old VCR, somebody else had a TV, and nobody wanted to pay for cable, so that tape played a lot over the ensuing months. I ended up getting so into it that when he moved out and far away, he gave the tape to me as a parting gift.
“I was just trying to be a good mother.”
That was twenty years ago. Truth be told, I had only watched the tape once since then, with a girlfriend who was another one of… those people…. but I do still have it, many moves and phases of life later. (I have it playing right now as I write this.) One might say I walked into the New Hazlett Theater carrying some baggage, hoping against hope that I wouldn’t be disappointed, and that the performance would not be an insult to a memory—my treasured memory in particular.
“I pulled it from a maiden in a tower.”
How was the show Saturday night? I was pleasantly surprised in the short run, relieved in the long run. The New Hazlett is to a Broadway theater as Pittsburgh is to New York City—it isn’t, nor does it try to be. It’s what musicians would call “a good room,” with nice acoustics, where you can hear everything that’s going on without your eardrums bleeding, yet get a nice view even high up in the back (where I was). The stage compensates for its relative narrowness with a lot of vertical space, well utilized. (And there’s decent beer outside.) They do very well with what they have to work with.
“Opportunity is not a lengthy visitor.”
So what’s the show about, anyway? In case you’re going into it not knowing the story, and without ruining its many surprises for you, it is, on the most fundamental level, about fairy tales—CINDERELLA, LITTLE RED RIDINGHOOD, RAPUNZEL, JACK AND THE BEANSTALK, etc., taking place in…the woods, a sort of pastoral…holodeck…where the different stories get mishmashed together and, for example, the charming princes from CINDERELLA and RAPUNZEL blunder into each other and end up discussing their woman problems.
“There are right, and wrongs, and in-betweens.”
You ask: OK, but what else is the show about? The relationships of children and parents are one obvious theme, but I’ll go out on the proverbial limb and say, that more than anything else, it’s about wanting what you don’t have, and not wanting what you do have. I could also make a comment about the woods representing the mythical Great Unknown, a destination for people with nothing to lose, but that would be too much of a stretch. Just go see it yourself and let it mean whatever you want it to mean. I dare say that was Sondheim’s original intention.
“I’m in the wrong story.”
Act 1 ends with “and they all lived happily ever after.” And then there’s Act Two. For those of you who don’t know the plot, that’s as much as I’ll disclose.
“I’ve never lied to royalty before.”
On to the cast. In this writer’s eyes, the player with the most significant burden to bear was Caroline Nicolian, in the role of the Wicked Witch, faced with the unenviable task of making me not miss Bernadette Peters. Perhaps she’s never even seen the same performance I have; whatever the case, Nicolian is no tiresome imitator. (I once saw, for example, a particularly irritating summer stock ONCE UPON A MATTRESS Carol Burnett try-to-be.) Nicolian occupies the stage just as well as the doddering old crone as she does later on, when she gets to be ravishing. (OK, that’s a spoiler, but, guys, it’s something to look forward to.)
“Slotted spoons don’t hold much soup.”
Another early delight is Audra Qualley as Little Red Ridinghood. The actress who plays this part gets the first big solo number, so she really has to nail it to keep the energy going, and this Qualley does with room to spare, seeming to tower over the audience as well as the stage while chewing just the slightest edges of the scenery (showing greater restraint than her character—I digress). She’s innocent, with just the right sarcastic edge.
“You can talk to birds?”
I also especially like Andrew Swackhamer, doing double duty as both Little Red Ridinghood’s wolf and Cinderella’s prince, who plays the Wolf like the Chippendales dancer from Hell and doesn’t do much different as the Prince besides throwing on a uniform and some aftershave. In his duet with Rapunzel’s prince, Swackhamer’s charisma fights Little Red Ridinghood’s to a standstill. It’s too bad that Jason Aarons, playing the other prince, can’t quite keep up with him, but I don’t think that’s Aarons’ fault, either. Swackhamer gets bigger laughs by playing his part with his whole body, while Aarons simply stands there and sings well. Their singing voices blend together nicely, showing good casting, but somebody needs to suggest that Aarons find a little bit of his inner Wolf—just a thought. They sing in sync, but they don’t act in sync. I don’t want to see less Swackhamer, but I would like to see more Aarons.
“The prettier the flower, the farther from the path.”
While Bernadette Peters was the Big Name in the Broadway cast, it was Joanna Gleason, playing the Baker’s Wife, who won the Tony; all these years later, I still remember her especially vividly. As does the previously admired Caroline Nicolian, Andrea Weinzierl, playing the Baker’s Wife, doesn’t seem to be imitating anybody either; she simply lets us hear her heart beating. This is crucial to her character as well as to the overall success of the show, as it could be argued that while the Wicked Witch sets the chain of events into motion, the Baker’s Wife, is, arguably, the show’s most sympathetic character, and the closest thing there is to a leading role in the ensemble. I remember that Joanna Gleason got the biggest, loudest, and longest applause of the night after her solo number; I was disappointed to see Weinzierl not receive the same, as I certainly felt she deserved it.
“Ask a wolf’s mother.”
The role of the Baker’s Wife, however, brings up another complaint, another one for which I prefer not to blame the performers. INTO THE WOODS has all kinds of great musical numbers, with plenty of opportunities to show off one’s pipes, but there are also many marvelous lines of dialogue, some quoted here. The Baker’s Wife, for example, has two especially great throwaway lines, both which I have seen receive bigger laughs than they did Saturday night at the New Hazlett. I would guess Andrea Weinzierl to be perfectly capable of delivering them better; it’s just that no one seems to have told her to. The director has done an excellent job with the music—I wish he had devoted a little more attention to the non-music. The great lines are still there, however—you just might have to work a little to notice them.
“The harder to get, the better to have.”
From a technical standpoint, the changes of scenery and lighting come off smoothly, at least not letting the audience see the wheels and gears behind the backdrops. I’ll give a special shout-out to whoever was in charge of Cinderella’s birds, because I tried, and was never able to see any disembodied hands.
“Children should listen.”
Looking at the show from a purely acoustic point of view, the players employ pin mikes in order to stay even volume-wise with the musicians (Were they pre-recorded? I never saw any instruments.), at their own risk, as is always the case when placing one’s trust in non-human elements. I didn’t hear any feedback, except for one instance when Cinderella put her glasses on and made contact with her wire—nasty buzz!. (Myself, I wouldn’t miss her glasses at all, but that seems to be the way her character is written.) There were, however, several instances where the actors started talking before the sound crew activated their mikes, including one really glaring flub, when the giant wife’s was much less than her usual stentorian self. Overall, though, the sound was fine when it worked, which was, to the sound crew’s credit, most of the time.
These are just a few minor quibbles. Carnivale’s INTO THE WOODS is definitely a whole greater than the sum of its parts—funny as hell most of the time, moving and sad at other times. To draw a musical analogy, as in order to do a great cover, one must start with a great song, in order to have a great musical performance, one must start with a great show. INTO THE WOODS is not a challenge to be taken on casually—indeed, it’s so complex, it would seem to be an incredibly easy show to screw up. The Carnivale’s INTO THE WOODS isn’t perfect, but you’ll be on your feet at the end, as I was, along with the rest of the audience. It’s here for one more weekend, unless it gets held over.
When is the show running?
June 24, 2011 – July 3, 2011
Thursday, Friday and Saturday – 8 pm
Sunday – 2:30 pm
There is a tea party event on Saturday, July 2 at 11am. Children and adults will have a chance to meet and get autographs from the cast of “Into The Woods,” including Cinderella, the Witch, the Baker, the Baker’s Wife, Jack, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and the Big Bad Wolf! Refreshments will be served. Children are welcome to come dressed as their favorite storybook character. An abbreviated version of the musical will be performed at 12:00 p.m.
$25/$15 for Students (with school ID)