Review: Into the Woods (The Hypocrites at Mercury Theater)

| February 13, 2014
Sarah Bockel and Hillary Marren star in The Hypocrites' "Into the Woods" by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, directed by Geoff Button. (photo credit: Matthew Gregory Hollis)        
      
Into the Woods

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Lapine 
Directed by Geoff Button
at Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport (map)
thru April 5  |  tickets: $20-$59   |  more info
       
Check for half-price tickets 
    
        
                   Read review
     


   Now extended through April 5th!

  

Hypocrites continue their trend with spectacular results

     

Hannah Dawe, Hillary Marren, Sarah Bockel, Will Skrip and Kate Harris in The Hypocrites' "Into the Woods" by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, directed by Geoff Button. (photo credit: Matthew Gregory Hollis)

    
The Hypocrites presents
    
Into the Woods

Review by Oliver Sava

Under the leadership of artistic director Halena Kays, The Hypocrites have embraced a whimsical, family-friendly aesthetic that has proven quite fruitful for the company in recent years. Sean Graney’s ’50s beach party adaptation of The Pirates of Penzance just finished a run at Actor’s Theatre of Louisville after playing at American Repertory Theater last year, and Graney’s circus-inspired adaptation of The Mikado moved to the Steppenwolf Garage for a remount during this past holiday season. The company still embraces darker subject matter—it’s currently running a showcase of three Tennessee Williams’ short plays at The Chopin— but there’s been a noted increase in fun during the last few seasons, and their new revival of Into the Woods continues that trend with spectacular results.

Michael Brown, Blake Montgomery, Aubrey McGrath and Joel Ewing star in The Hypocrites' "Into the Woods" by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, directed by Geoff Button. (photo credit: Evan Hanover)Geoff Button’s staging of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s bittersweet fairy tale musical takes a playful, aggressively juvenile approach to the material by setting it in a playground environment and giving the entire production a do-it-yourself appearance. Initial impressions make it seem like a production put on by a group of very talented grade-schoolers during recess, but that bright, childish aesthetic ultimately creates a fascinating juxtaposition with the darkening content as the characters are forced to face reality and grow up. William Boles’ set design uses strings of balloons for the forest’s trees, a dynamic element of the stage that changes as the characters explore different areas of the woods. The first act is a witty, rapidly paced journey through the inflated landscape, but when things take a turn for the worst in the second act, those vibrant party decorations become a visual reminder of a youth that gets further away with each moment.

Button’s incredibly versatile ensemble is what really sells the concept, which puts almost every actor in multiple roles. Double-casting isn’t anything new for Into the Woods, but rarely is it done on the scale of this production; in the context of the concept, it feels like this group of school friends wanted to put on the show but didn’t have enough people, so they took on more individual responsibility. All the rapid character changes mean things can get chaotic on stage, but the cast uses that frenzied energy to keep the momentum chugging along.

Hillary Marren is seemingly everywhere for the first three-quarters of the show, not only playing the vocally demanding role of the Witch, but also Red Riding Hood’s Granny, Cinderella’s mother, and evil stepsister Lucinda. She does fantastic work switching between the characters, and her voice transitions with ease from the harsh nasality of the Witch to the angelic fullness of Cinderella’s mother. (There’s a lot of Bernadette Peters in Marren’s Witch, which works just fine because she does a spot-on impression, but after seeing all the other characters Marren can play, it’s odd that Button doesn’t take the Witch in a more original direction.) Sarah Bockel shows off a similarly wide vocal range as both Cinderella and Rapunzel, bringing a delicate, Disney princess-like touch when called for, but also knowing when to rein it in for more grounded, introspective moments.

Oddly, the only bit of double-casting that doesn’t work in the production is the one that isn’t breaking Into the Woods tradition. The same actor usually plays the Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince, and while Will Skrip is delightful as the flamboyant young monarch, his lustful canine leaves something to be desired. Specifically: desire. His performance doesn’t take advantage of the innuendo in the Wolf’s big number “Hello, Little Girl,” struggling to bring the sexual energy up to lukewarm when it should be at full boil. There’s far more intimacy in Skrip’s homoerotic scenes with Rapunzel’s Prince (Michael Brown), which utilize the contemporary context to make the princes oblivious participants in gay flirtation. It’s a choice that works extremely well with what is already written; the narcissists are attracted to each other because they are basically the same person, and the new dynamic adds some hilarious innuendo to the reprise of “Agony” with its lyrics about sticks and pricks.

After a clever shadow play detailing the conclusion of the classic Red Riding Hood fairy tale, Little Red (Hannah Dawe) emerges with a new worldview. The sensuality missing from the Wolf’s number is found in abundance in Little Red’s “I Know Things Now,” and there are some particularly interesting choices made by Dawe to show the character’s conflicted emotions about recent events. So much of this play involves the cast quickly working out hectic mental activity through song, and the ensemble makes all those rapid shifts clear while beautifully performing the music.

Joel Ewing, Allison Hendrix, Aubrey McGrath and Blake Montgomery star in The Hypocrites' "Into the Woods" by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, directed by Geoff Button. (photo credit: Evan Hanover) Sarah Bockel, Hannah Dawe, Aubrey McGrath, Kate Harris, Hillary Marren, Will Skrip, Michael Brown, Joel Ewing and Blake Montgomery star in The Hypocrites' "Into the Woods" by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, directed by Geoff Button. (photo credit: Matthew Gregory Hollis)
Allison Hendrix, Aubrey McGrath, Hannah Dawe, Kate Harris, Blake Montgomery, Michael Brown, Hillary Marren and Joel Ewing in The Hypocrites' "Into the Woods" by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, directed by Geoff Button. (photo credit: Matthew Gregory Hollis) Allison Hendrix and Joel Ewing in The Hypocrites' "Into the Woods" by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, directed by Geoff Button. (photo credit: Evan Hanover)

Joel Ewing and Allison Hendrix are the only actors that don’t play multiple roles, giving them the opportunity to fully explore the relationship between the Baker and the Baker’s Wife and show both sides of a complicated dynamic. Ewing’s earnest, immediately sympathetic stage persona is a perfect fit for the Baker, and when he restricts his wife, there’s a genuine sense that he’s doing it to protect her. That doesn’t lessen his wife’s need to explore the world outside their domestic bubble, but it amplifies the conflict she feels when she finally pursues her own agenda. Hendrix’s powerful vocals, emotional honesty, and sharp comic instincts make her a captivating Baker’s Wife, creating a character eager to pave her own path but not yet willing to let go of her old life.

Putting Ewing on stage with Blake Montgomery, another immensely likable actor, creates a surge of endearing sincerity for the father-son duet “No More,” pulling at the heartstrings before the tearjerker “No One Is Alone” delivers an emotional gut-punch. In general, the bonds between parents and their children are wonderfully defined in this production. Northwestern student Aubrey McGrath makes an impressive professional debut as Jack and the Steward, and the double casting adds an intriguing Freudian layer to Jack’s relationship with his mother (Kate Harris) because of the Steward’s role in the woman’s final fate.

Each time the characters say, “I wish,” they perform the same gesture, a clever way for Button and choreographer Katie Spellman to illustrate the way personal wants incite action. Some of the actors are better than others at incorporating this gesture into their natural movement, with Marren and Montgomery making it look especially organic, as if their characters have made so many wishes that the accompanying motion is instinctual. When individuals die, a personal belonging is brought to the front of the stage and set down by a character who silently makes the “I wish” gesture, releasing the soul into the afterlife with one final hope for its future.

It’s easy to be fooled by the chalk and Crayola appearance of this revival and think that this is a production that simplifies an intensely layered piece of work, but the rich performances create a complex emotional foundation that works with the concept to offer a refreshing take on the source material. Under Matt Deitchman’s musical direction, the cast does impeccable vocal work, with especially impressive diction that makes sure all of Sondheim’s wordplay comes across. This Into the Woods sounds great, looks great, and is overflowing with imagination and resourcefulness. It’s the kind of production that will make you want to listen to the soundtrack immediately so you can relive The Hypocrites’ bold choices, because once upon a time isn’t enough.

  
Rating: ★★★½
  
   

Into the Woods continues through March 30th April 5th at Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport (map), with performances Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays 2pm and 8pm, Sundays 3pm.  Tickets are $20-$59, and are available by phone (773-325-1700) or online through Vendini.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at MercuryTheaterChicago.com(Running time: play length, includes an intermission)

Joel Ewing, Kate Harris, Will Skrip, Hillary Marren Aubrey McGrath, Blake Montgomery Allison Hendrix and Hannah Dawe star in The Hypocrites' "Into the Woods" by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, directed by Geoff Button. (photo credit: Evan Hanover)

Photos by Evan Hanover and Matthew Gregory Hollis 


     

artists

cast

Sarah Bockel (Cinderella, Rapunzel), Michael Brown (Rapunzel’s Prince, Cinderella’s Father), Hannah Dawe (Red, Stepsister), Joel Ewing (Baker), Kate Harris (Jack’s Mother, Cinderella’s Stepmother), Allison Hendrix (Baker’s Wife), Hillary Marren (Witch, Granny), Aubrey McGrath (Jack, Steward), Blake Montgomery (Narrator, Mysterious Man), Will Skrip (Cinderella’s Prince, Wolf); Michelle Schechter, Lauren Paris, Nate Lewellyn, William Lucas, Jeff Meyer, Laura McClain (understudies)

orchestra

Matt Deitchman (piano, conductor), Kevin Reeks (keyboard 2, snare drum), Mike Matlock (woodwinds), Renee Henley (violin), David Nathaniel Pollak (bass clarinet).

behind the scenes

Geoff Button (director), Matt Deitchman (music director), William Boles (set design), Heather Gilbert (lighting design), Sally Dolembo (costume design), Joshua Horvath (sound design), Katie Spellman (choreography), Evan Hanover, Matthew Gregory Hollis (photos), Maggie Fullilove-Nugent (productions manager), Justine B. Palmisano (stage manager), Eleanor Kahn (props design), Michael Smallwood (technical director), Will Dean (master electrician), Joe Schofield (sound engineer), Alex Tey (fight choreography), Halena Kays (artistic director), Megan Wildebour (managing director), Spencer Neiman (asst. director), Alex Benjamin (asst. music director), JC Widman (asst. stage manager), Brandon Powers (asst. choreographer), Ryan Emens (asst. scenic design), Stephanie Cluggish (asst. costume design), Kate Grudichak (costume run crew)

Kate Harris, Aubrey McGrath, Hannah Dawe, Joel Ewing, Hillary Marren and Allison Hendrix in The Hypocrites' "Into the Woods" by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, directed by Geoff Button. (photo credit: Evan Hanover)

Blake Montgomery, Will Skrip, Michael Brown, Hillary Marren, Sarah Bockel, Allison Hendrix, Kate Harris, Joel Ewing, Aubrey McGrath and Hannah Dawe in The Hypocrites' "Into the Woods" by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, directed by Geoff Button. (photo credit: Evan Hanover)

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Category: 2014 Reviews, Hypocrites Theatre, Mercury Theater, Musical, Oliver Sava, Stephen Sondheim

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