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Theater Review: Into The Woods

Photo 1When: Through March 30
Where: Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes
Tickets: $22-$59 at 773-325-1700 or www.mercurytheaterchicago.com

Tweetable Review:  Magically unconventional & proves storytelling is about heart & anything but child’s play

Few companies in Chicago have been capable enough to constantly create a haven for creative & thoroughly conceptualized productions that, while not always agreeable to everyone, give way to deep thought and critical discussion – no matter the topic. Without a doubt, one of these houses is the always-engaging Hypocrites. And it came as no surprise that when the company announced that Into the Woods would be on the docket at the Mercury Theatre, that the production quickly rose to become one of the most anticipated in Chicago for the theatrical Season. But like any idea worth its weight, the proof is in the pudding. It’s one thing to say you are going to mount a production of one of the most conceptually constructed Stephen Sondheim shows written, but it’s another to have pre-conceived notions thrust upon by blind eyes & have to live up to expectations. So what did audiences receive during the recent opening here in Chicago, of the musical which James Lapine helped Stephen Sondheim craft the winner of Best Book & Score on Broadway in 1987? Well, a deconstructed & heartfelt homage – and nothing less.

Photo 2Audiences should be very glad that director Geoff Button undertook the daunting task of bringing the much-loved musical to life as The Hypocrites offer audiences an admirably passionate and finely tuned Into the Woods. Here, Button’s production opens on a children’s playground, giving audiences an almost microcosm view which is made of part adult & part childen – but true make-believe. It’s easy to grasp the mindset with which Button is going with, as Into the Woods revolves around highlighting several plots from the Brothers Grimm fairy tales – a setting that is already heightened to begin with. It’s at this point after the first number in the show that audiences have either bought into Button’s concept or not – not matter how motivated it is. Thankfully, it’s not hard to buy in with this fully committed cast & crew who have offered their talents.

With the sheer number of characters involved with this story, it’s hard to do full coverage when viewing this cast. Notably however is, Allison Hendrix’s sardonic Baker’s Wife, simply garners empathy from her first steps on stage – one feels for her journey through chaos and is a rooting factor in this production. Hillary Marren brings some nice levels & sporadic intensity in the vein of Carol Kane to her Witch role for an enjoyable watch, even if occasionally aping Bernadette Peter’s iconic character voice. Blake Montgomery has a balanced line in telling a story & his own brand of schadenfreude within his Narrator role, it will leave audiences satisfyingly entertained – even if they are questioning his exact motives. Finally, Matt Dietchman’s musical direction is felt in every scene of the production on stage here, while also offering a wonderfully intimate & precise backing orchestra to enjoy this often-times erratically moving score.

Like our characters here on stage, the path of this show does weave occasionally off it’s course. Sally Dolembo’s costumes aren’t the most over-the-top or flashy & they certainly fit the required concept, but deconstruction doesn’t necessarily mean minimalistic at all times. Stage design is thoughtful with some flair at the right times but isn’t always specific in detail, and misses a key element here – the Woods. While the mysterious essence of the Wood appears, the danger and sense of immediacy is amiss. Finally, Button’s stage movement is thought-worthy, builds a contextually present World in both story & setting of the playground & the rapid-fire timing is nothing to scoff at. With this said however, Button diverts himself time-to-time by pulling focus in less-than ideal areas, often leading to an occasionally jilted pacing; in a production as fluidly-potent & impressively grasping as this one was in places, its all that much more important to ensure that your audience can stay engaged by fully taking in each picture & moment.

With all of the aforementioned comments, The Hypocrites production is still a worthy one to see. The show comes off like its characters – a bit flawed, a little uneven and but altogether enchanting. Into the Woods isn’t the most complete show to be mounted from The Hypocrites but its definitely worth a watch.

Fresh Roasted Rating: Recommended

~ Matt W. Miles, 24/7 Contributor
Producer of Fresh Roasted Films

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