Disclaimer: My intention is to always see a show within the first five performances. I have a couple reasons for this strategy. One, if I like it, I can help promote people seeing it. Two, I don’t want my experience to be tainted by those reviewers who come before me. It’s my practice not to read a review until I post mine. I saw The Hypocrites‘ latest show two weeks after it debuted. Social media being what it is, I was aware of the controversial ratings it was receiving from purists. Still, I’m not a purist and I am a believer in enchantment.
Once upon a time…
Mercury Theater Chicago presents The Hypocrites’ production of INTO THE WOODS.
Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (book) created the Tony Award-winning musical about the side effects of fairytales. Familiar Grimm characters, like; The Baker and his wife, Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, have their choices analyzed. Stories collide and overlap in unexpected ways. The baker kills the wolf. Jack’s magic beans are from the witch’s garden. Prince charming is ‘seeing other people.’ It’s an amalgamation of all the well-known stories with an added layer of maternal guidance. Both Red and Jack continually reiterate what their mothers’ told them. These mom directives are typical for any kid. That real advice cobbles together with the pretend tales. Sondheim’s finale song “Children will listen” sums up this cautionary musical about kids confusing fantasy with reality.
The entire musical is from a kid’s perspective… so The Hypocrites go there. Set Designer William Boles places us in a playground. Rapunzel’s tower is a slide. The forest is made of balloons. Colorful classroom chairs are on either side of the stage. This is truly a make-believe experience. The front of the stage is lined with a variety of different toys. Director Geoff Button poignantly shows a character’s death by another character placing a prop over a toy. The gravity of the situation parallels the loss of childhood. Button even has Designer Sally Dolembo keep the costumes to a minimal. This decision also suggests children playing dress up as the actor adds a cape, hat or collar to their street clothes to morph into a persona.
That wardrobe decision improves functionality because most of the very talented ensemble are playing multiple parts. They impressively change roles even within the same scene and sometimes the same song. Hillary Marren (witch) is a standout going from mischievous hag to confident vixen. She sheds a cape, grows a few inches and sings at a higher pitch. Under Button’s bright pacing, the terrific cast does an amazing job engaging the audience. Blake Montgomery moves the story along with his smooth-talking narration and timely facilitation of props.
The melodies rock. The comedy cackles. This show enchants. Usually, a favorite duet is produced by a romantic couple. This time it was a pair of princes (Michael Brown and Will Skrip) lamenting in a harmonious and hilarious “Agony.” The comedy is timed to perfection throughout the show. Hannah Dawe (Red) nails the one liners. Allison Hendrix (Baker’s wife) brings the amusing I-Love-Lucy conniving. And Joel Ewing (Baker) delivers deadly deadpan. Ewing, especially, cracks the audience and his cast mates up. At my performance, Ewing improvs brilliantly a gold coin malfunction. The cast on the sidelines are laughing as hard as the audience. It’s this kind of synergy that makes this show a fun time. The terrific cast are enjoying each other’s antics as much as we are.
Throughout the show, the repeated phrase ‘I wish’ is uttered with a physical gesture. The actor touches his/her mouth and then sweeps his/her arm up. The motion seems to pull the wish out of the person and send it to the heavens to be fulfilled. The synchronized movement becomes natural for the ensemble like tossing salt over a shoulder. The ongoing hopeful action reenforces an innocence of youth.
The show is not all child play. In fact, Act 2 has some heavy-duty tragedy. The sadness is coupled with humor. The joyous tone turns soulful. Ewing beautifully leads the cast in singing “Children will listen.” The heartfelt delivery of this life lesson chokes me up.
I loved going INTO THE WOODS. As I had expected, this Hypocrites‘ version has their signature whimsy. And that made me love it more.
…And they all lived happily ever after. I wish.
Running Time: Two hours and fifty minutes includes a twenty minute intermission
At Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport
Book by James Lapine
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Geoff Button
Musical direction by Matt Deitchman
Thursdays at 7:30pm
Fridays at 8pm
Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm
Sundays at 3pm
Thru March 30th
Buy Tickets at www.MercuryTheaterChicago.com
Production photo by Evan Hanover