Annex Theatre is the smaller of two segments that make up a gargantuan deconsecrated church, a block south of Bloor on Bathurst Street.
Though the venue is a bit diminutive, “Look how big the cast is,” my theatre partner exclaimed – nearly in a shriek – before the performance, as we went through the program.
Into the Woods includes twenty cast members. There are also, at least, another twenty members in the crew, including four musicians – a piano player (Tara Litvack), violinist (Meghan Cheng), a viola player (Senan Whelan), and a cellist (Iris Krizmanie).
Into the Woods is, to steal some YouTube parlance, a mash-up.
The story, credited to James Lapine, crosses four fairy tales – Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Little Red Riding Hood (the latter two parts, Jack and Little Red Riding Hood, played by Cameron Fox-Revett, and Esther Vallins, respectively) – in addition to a young couple, a baker and his wife.
The whole thing’s set to music, by Stephen Sondheim.
Mostly, the characters sing their parts (the lyrics credited to Mr. Sondheim). Occasionally though, a narrator (played by Stephen Flett) presides over the action, adding a sentence or two of unsung words.
Mr. Sondheim’s score has a galloping rhythm. At times, because it’s so percussive, it was like Ms. Litvack (also credited as the musical director) was pounding on the keys of her piano like a drum.
Other than the piano, and a few flights on the strings, I hardly even noticed the score. Worth noting, as Into The Woods is generally considered a musical.
Maybe this is because so much is happening onstage, so fast.
Wondering aloud more speculatively, it crosses my mind whether the score – while bold, and somewhat experimental compared to other musicals – is minimal, by design.
If anything, with its repeating phrases and terrific speed, the score has a metronomic effect – keeping time for the singing – rather than an emotional impact.
“They don’t slow down, do they,” my theatre partner commented with a laugh, at the intermission.
It’s true – I agree.
The first act of Into the Woods, more than an hour-and-a-half long, shot by.
While Act One seems to concern itself with sustaining fairy tales, and suggesting the so-called, happy “fairy tale ending” is possible, Act Two reveals that possibility as an illusion.
Act Two imagines what happens after “Happily ever after …”
Act Two is rife with loss and confusion. There’s no more narrative – no more narrator even, Mr. Flett’s character is knocked off the roster. And, it is Act Two that fully infected my thoughts, the way that the rhythm of Act One got my toe tapping inadvertently.
Mr. Lapine and Mr. Sondheim do this masterfully, tending away from the type of frenetic, highly wrought plotting of Act One, to focus on the characters. They also grant them enough freedom to make mistakes – particularly, a character called the Baker’s Wife (played by Jennifer Dewar), and enough of a presence of mind to reflect on their own choices, like the Baker (played by Sergio Calderon), for example.
All this, in song!
In the hands of lesser artists, I think this might easily come across as trite. But here, cultivating that basic humanity seems so natural given that in Act One, the lyrics already give us a taste of how clever, silly and willful these characters can be.
By the time Mr. Lapine and Mr. Sondheim are done, the smoke rising from the heap of rubble that was formerly “happily ever after,” occults any hope there was once was that things might be perfect.
This is rendered so truthfully, it brought my theatre partner to tears.
I’d very strongly recommend StageWorks Toronto’s production of Into The Woods.
Photo credit: Erica Hayes-Bouyouris