The Hypocrites Vibrantly Re-Imagine INTO THE WOODS
Anyone that questions the creative force of Chicago storefront theaters have to look no further than The Hypocrites ingenious re-imagining of Stephen Sondheim’s 1986 musical Into The Woods. For Sondheim stalwarts, this is the show the best captures the composer/lyricists genius (I would argue that would be Sweeney Todd, but I am not a stalwart) and he turns the common fairy tale and the lessons they bring to a child full circle, making them morality stories for the adult as we are warned “careful the things you wish, children will listen”. There is another tacit warning that comes with any Sondheim musical and that is make sure you have the talent to pull it off or else the show will plummet as no others you have ever produced.
Under the colorful eye of director Geoff Button, this Into The Woods is a departure in both tone and substance from other recently produced (and not very well) productions. From the moment you walk into the doors at the Mercury Theater with a set designed by William Boles, you may think you have entered a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat as we are met with a kindergarten classroom replete with primary colors and cheerful, naive classmates and teachers. It is in that realm that makes this production work. Sondheim and collaborator James Lapine’s point is to take our preconceived notions of what goes on in a fairy tale and turn it around. This is the same concept used in Wicked to much greater success.
Any shortcomings of this production are alleviated by Mr. Button’s exceptional casting of ten, each finding their own voice within Sondheim’s tricky cadences along with Matt Deitchman’s spot-on musical direction. Aubrey McGrath’s skillful and thrilling interpretation of “Giants In The Sky” rivals any cast recorded version; Will Skrip and Michael Brown are perfectly suited as the Brothers Charming as their “Agony” can surely be alleviated by being cast in a Corbin Fisher video; Sarah Bockel’s gorgeous and belty soprano makes her Cinderella less vulnerable than most which makes me like her character interpretation all the more; Hillary Marren’s commanding Witch will haunt you long after you leave the theatre and yes, she knocks “Children Will Listen” out of the stratosphere.
But this Into The Woods really gets its mojo from the innate comedic abilities of Allison Hendrix and Joel Ewing. Mr Ewing and Ms. Hendrix both have impeccable timing and they allow their fellow actors to play off this unique humor in the first act while together they give needed dramatic structure to the second, which most productions lack.
Even with all the good things within The Hypocrites production, Into The Woods as a whole remains both overlong and over-structured. With a film version featuring Meryl Streep soon to be released and new stage production rumored for both London and New York, we are sure to see other companies attempting this work. Mr. Button and company have re-sculpted Into The Woods as a show that works for their company which should be noted by other companies that attempt to mount this musical. That incredible vision and talent is what makes The Hypocrites part of the fabric the makes Chicago theatre a beacon for others to follow.