Into the Woods (show review)..aka, I LEFT THE HOUSE!!!

Poor timing, but the night after my clumsy accident, I had tickets to see “Into the Woods” with Ravi for date night.  I rested all Saturday, took my painkiller at a time that would allow me to get through the whole show, and was able to enjoy myself (and leaving the house for someplace other than school drop-off/pick-up and various doctor’s appointments).

I caught the Dream Academy’s Production of Into the Woods at the Esplanade Theater on Saturday July 30th.

This was my first look at a local professional mounting of a broadway show, as opposed to a touring company, or local theater, and I was fairly impressed.  The talent pool was impressive, the staging was appropriate to the venue and budget, and the live orchestra did a great job of supporting the talent.

Into the Woods is a tough show for me to watch (something I’d forgotten) because I love it, I’ve seen a LOT of interpretations of it (it’s a popular college show) and have even done tech crew for a production.  I’ve auditioned for it (sadly never getting in as my singing isn’t as strong as it needed to be).  I’ve owned the 1986 original Broadway cast production first on VHS and then on DVD for years and have seen it countless times.  I know every word in the libretto.  The only shows I’m possibly more picky about are Phantom of the Opera, and Rent (both of which I’ve easily seen around 15-20 times each).  I feel it’s only fair to disclose that I have VERY strong opinions about this show.

For those who have never heard of/seen Into the Woods, without giving away too much of the plot, Stephen Sondheim takes several familiar fairy tale characters (Cinderella, Jack of Jack and the Beanstalk, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel) and some new characters as a plot device (Baker and his wife) and throws them all into the same “woods” over the course of three nights.  Each person has a wish they’re trying to fulfill, and struggle with whether they really want it (Cinderella), what’s ethical to get it (Baker and his Wife), lose their innocence (Red Riding Hood) and so on.  But at the end of the first act, everyone thinks they’ve found “happily ever after.”  Unfortunately it’s a 2 act show, and in act 2, they’re faced with what happens after happily ever after and struggle with far tougher decisions.

However, it’s not a dark show…see one of my favorite numbers (although it’s from a BBC in concert version of Into the Woods, not the Singapore production) “Agony”

[CINDERELLA’S PRINCE]
Am I not sensitive,
Clever,
Well-mannered,
Considerate,
Passionate,
Charming,
As kind as I’m handsome
And heir to a throne?

[RAPUNZEL’S PRINCE]
You are everything maidens could wish for!

[CINDERELLA’S PRINCE]
Then why no-?

[RAPUNZEL’S PRINCE]
Do I know?

[CINDERELLA’S PRINCE]
The girl must be mad!

Fans of the local group Dim Sum Dollies will be excited to see Selena Tan as “The Baker’s Wife” and Emma Yong as “Cinderella.”  Both bring their considerable vocal and acting chops to two of the three female leads.  Selena Tan did double duty, also taking on the role of executive producer, which is impressive.

Ria Jones graced Singapore with her talent (she’s a well known West End talent, who created the role of Norma Desmond in the workshop version of Sunset Boulevard, among other impressive credentials).  The role of “The Witch” was originated by Broadway legend Bernadette Peters and few women can fill her shoes, but Jones did so with such aplomb, I stopped comparing her interpretation altogether.  I especially loved her rendition of “Last Midnight” (sung as a sinister lullaby to the Baker’s baby, in staging taken from the most recent Broadway production of the show).

Adrian Pang was Jack in the last Singapore production of Into the Woods, and this year he steps into the male lead’s role as the Baker.  He’s fully up to the task, leading us through his character’s growth and grief throughout the show.  Funny and then heartbreaking, he makes it look effortless.

The staging is well thought out, with few moving parts (without the big broadway bucks to have expensive fly sets, it’s a challenge to do into the woods without people on stage to constantly be moving things), and the few that are used (the tree rotates for various purposes, also serving as Cinderella’s mother’s tree, Rapunzel’s tower, and a generic tree among others) are used well and broadly.  The cast is able to get some of the staging on and off without it appearing too contrived, which again, is a challenge.  In the college production I did tech on, we were dressed in black and trying to move things without being a distraction to the audience.

While not to my taste, the costuming is very Asian…almost a cross between harajuku/anime style clothes with a heavy dose of goth.  While I might prefer the more traditional European Fairytale costuming, it did add a more local flavor to the production.

My one big complaint in the costuming area was the tarting up of Red Riding Hood.  It’s fairly clear from the libretto and Sondheim’s original production that Red is supposed to be about 12/13 and suffers a loss of innocence due to her encounter with the wolf (the original fairy tale before it was pared down for modern audiences is a cautionary tale about rape), which gives her song “I know things now” a far more poignant cast, as it mourns the loss of childhood innocence (“isn’t nice to know a lot…and a little bit not?”)  ln the local production, she’s a saucy 16/18 year old wearing a have open shirt (and exposing her black bra) and a skirt so short it deliberately flashes us and the wolf her panties when she bends over.  She’s a cock-tease who leads the wolf on in fun, and then turns her song into a lesson learned as she buttons her shirt closed.  It’s not a bad interpretation, but I’m not crazy about it (or the implication that women who dress in revealing clothes are “asking for it” and should learn to cover up–but that’s a discussion for another day).

My other major complaint was the Rocky Horror Style lips on the screen in the back to represent the giant’s wife.  Unnecessary, distracting and kept pulling me out of the show (as I repressed the urge to scream “lips lips lips” as one does at Rocky Horror).  The giant’s wife doesn’t need to to be anything other than a loud voice and just because you have the technology to put giant lips on a screen at the back of the stage doesn’t mean you should.  If it’s not Rocky Horror, it’s just wrong.

At times I also found the choreography distracting.  There are several times when you have far too many cast members on stage without reason and it becomes distracting.  I found this most frustrating during “Last Midnight” as Ria Jones needs no support and owns the stage during the song. It’s meant to be a show stopping solo number and having the cast dancing around during it was both irritating and distracting.  If a lesser actor had done the role, they could have been overshadowed by it.  In that number, they’re more on stage to get a piece of furniture (and the witch) offstage, but surely it could’ve been staged differently such that it was less distracting?

For someone who has never seen the show or would like to see a different culture’s take on a familiar show, Into the Woods is fantastic.  It’s also the best non-touring show I’ve seen in Singapore and the first local show where I wanted to give a standing ovation.

Into the Woods plays through August 7th only so get tickets now!

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