"Once upon a time..."
BA du du du du.
You know from the very first note that this is going to be a night of surprises. And that's how you know it's Sondheim. Right here in Redwood City.
Broadway by the Bay's production of Into the Woods has literally been on my calendar for an entire year; last November, I saw a poster outlining BBTBay's 2019 season at the Fox Theater while strolling through downtown Redwood City, and knew I had to go.
I instantly invited my musical buddy, telling him that if our friendship survived a whole 'nother year, we could celebrate by seeing one of the best musicals ever written. The thrillingly clever, light and dark modern fairy tale intertwines timeless characters, including Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (of the Beanstalk), and others, with new storylines and boundless imagination.
We recently saw Jesus Christ Superstar in San Jose, so our bars were high -- but one thing we enjoyed about this show before it even started is that it's so conveniently located in the Peninsula, in a trendy downtown area, so we didn't have to worry about parking or traffic.
Over dinner, I gushed about how rare it is for a lyricist to also be the composer -- usually, it's duos. Rodgers and Hammerstein. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. But then there are those rare individuals -- Stephen Sondheim, Cole Porter -- who are witty enough to write entertaining and heart-wrenching words to accompany their own music.
I talked about how I take inspiration from Sondheim when writing my own lyrics; how the composer-lyricist got his start by writing the lyrics to Broadway classics like West Side Story and Gypsy, then went on to compose transformational shows like Company (1970), Follies (1971), Sunday in the Park With George (1984), and Passion (1994). I talked about how Sondheim is the master of writing ambivalent characters, who passionately sing words they might actually mean the opposite of.
I also mentioned how Sondheim's lyrics burst with clever wordplay ("We've no time to sit and dither, While her withers wither with her;" "The woods are just trees, The trees are just wood -- I sort of hate to ask it, but do you have a basket?" "It's his father's fault that the curse got placed, and the place got cursed in the first place!") -- and that the composer himself writes word puzzles for fun and profit.
These wordplays keep the musical, from its 16-minute prologue to some of its darker moments, feeling bouncy and light. They keep the audience on their toes, because you don't want to miss a single joke, internal rhyme or alliteration.
Sam Faustine (the Baker), Juliana Lustenader (the Baker's Wife), and Kamren Mahaney. (Jack). Image: Broadway by the Bay
Oh, yes. I had thoughts about Into the Woods before even setting foot in the theater. If asked to describe the whole, three-hour musical in a word, I would probably go with "funny" -- possibly, "Hilarious!" And since one of the people in my group was a former standup comedian, I asked him as we left the theater, "What did you think of the actors' comedic timing?" (Something that is incredibly important for many of author/writer James Lapine's best jokes to work.)
"It... was excellent!" our resident expert replied.
Which is why the three-hour show felt like two, not six.
Another thought I had walking into the theater:
"The Witch is one of my favorite characters ever written for Broadway. She's so epic -- I hope the actor playing her tonight is also epic."
I was not disappointed. Jen Brooks brought the trifecta -- great acting, adding just the right amount of zany, quirky, over-the-top, without spilling into camp. Great comedy. Smooth vocals with incredible breath support (her song in the prologue is extremely wordy -- who knew a song about gardening could be so clever and engaging?). How do you get a witch who is terrifying, uncomfortable, lovable, and silly all at the same time? Cast Jen Brooks.
Jen Brooks as the Witch. Image: Broadway by the Bay
Jack's mother, Melissa Costa, almost knocked me off my chair with her singing -- it's no surprise she is a classically trained coloratura soprano with experience on both opera and musical theater stages.
John Melis brought another spectacular performance -- said one of my group, "He played 'charming' so well... it was almost kind of creepy. Like, creepy charming." I loved his voice, and knew something special was going to happen every time he prance-strode onto the stage.
Sam Faustine and Juliana Lustenader played the perfect couple that does not always fight like that. Faustine did my favorite "No More" that I've seen on stage (and I see Into the Woods at every opportunity), and, thanks to Lustenader's performance (and diction) in "Moments in the Woods," I found myself truly enjoying and reflecting on one of the songs that was formerly one of my least favorite in the show.
Into the Woods! Image: Broadway by the Bay
The creative team also deserves praise for their clever management of difficult scenes. Beyond just putting together a cast and orchestra that could hold the prologue (one of the hardest and most important songs in the musical) together, they also designed human-giant interactions; magical, on-stage human transformations; and other scenes that are challenging to stage (especially when trying to stay in a budget).
Of course, there were a couple of minor opening night kinks (which, as I've said time and again, is just part of live theater -- anything can happen! and that kind of makes it exciting -- I couldn't believe how Cinderella, played by Jennifer Mitchell, carried on without a flinch when the birds she had summoned failed to appear; it was so flawless, none of the three people I was with even noticed anything had gone wrong!), which I expect will be worked out for future performances that run now through Nov. 24.
That said, I didn't agree with every creative decision. There was one "gender bending" role, which I, personally, was not thrilled to see -- as a feminist, I reserve a special skepticism for seemingly "progressive" moves that take opportunities away from women. When such casting decisions are made, I can only really appreciate them when there is some reason or context or additional layer of meaning imparted by having this traditionally-gender role played by opposite-gender -- otherwise, it's just confusing. Am I supposed to understand this character as a drag queen? Transgender? A woman (who happens to be played by a man without further commentary? Am I supposed to ignore that she is a man, or is that somehow relevant?)? Something else?
"Suspending disbelief" is an important part of theater, and questions like these make it harder for me to do so.
The other thing that bothered me about this casting decision was that the exaggerated, cartoonish version of "femininity" you'd see in a drag race didn't quite fit on a stage where other women's roles are played by actual women. Cinderella's stepsisters, Florinda and Lucinda, are funny characters. But I found some of their nuance and humor to be buried next to their 6'5 "mother" whose every movement was a little too larger-than-life.
Especially when you consider that, for some reason, the stepsisters' costumes were boring and black (for a ball?), and at every given moment, Cinderella's mother was wearing the most elaborately feminine dress on stage. Even while walking through the woods, she still had a wrist loop.
For those who don't know: this is a wrist loop. Image: Clay Blackmore.
Even so, I had a wonderful time at the show. As always, I left the theater full of questions about wishes, what can happen when they come true, and what happens after they come true.
What did the characters have to say to get what they wanted?
Who was the most honest character? Was this also the most good or nice character?
Who (if anyone) gained moral knowledge? Is that important for survival, or are other lessons more valuable?
What does this musical say about the well-intentioned ways parents mess up their kids?
There are so many themes in the script and lyrics, I could talk about Into the Woods for days. I love how, when I work with my students, I don't let them use "boring" words, like good, bad, and nice. But when Sondheim uses them, they're suddenly deep and thought-provoking.
So go! Tickets (ranging from $44—$66) are available online, or by calling (650) 579-5565, There will be an ASL Interpreted performance at the November 23, 2pm matinee.
And don't forget to check the Broadway by the Bay website for information about upcoming auditions and the 2020 lineup -- expect great things, from The Sound of Music to Legally Blonde: The Musical to Cinderella.
About the Author
Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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