Admittedly, I am not a good baker. But I have one recipe for a chocolate chip cake that usually comes out pretty good. It’s a family favorite that I have made dozens of times over the years for holidays and special occasions. But every now and then, despite gathering the finest ingredients and systematically following all the instructions to the letter, the center of the cake sinks. And there is absolutely nothing I can do to salvage it.
I use this baking analogy to express my frustration at the McGregor Hall production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. It has all the makings of being a great production, including a strong cast, full orchestra, and some impressive creative elements. And yet, somehow it falls flat.
Into the Woods is a beloved musical theater masterpiece. Its fantastical book by James Lapine, along with Sondheim’s lyrical and imaginative score, won three Tony Awards in 1986, spawned two Broadway revivals and several international productions, and inspired a Disney film adaptation. But despite its twisted take on some well-known fairy tales, this show is not child’s play. It is a complex, sometimes convoluted, meaty, dark comedy that demands exactness in timing and tone to get it right.
Unfortunately, on the opening night of this Into the Woods, sound issues derailed the show from the start. Gross distortion turned strained sopranos into gibberish and stage screams into blood-curdling shrieks. And aside from the glaring sound problems, missteps in both tone and timing weighed down the entire first act. In fact, aside from a pitch-perfect vocal performance of Giants in the Sky by Benjamin Tarlton as Jack, one of the only moments in Act I that worked both vocally and comically was a duet between Cinderella’s Prince and Rapunzel’s Prince, played by John Westbrook and Kelsey Bledsoe respectively. Ironically, that number is called Agony, an apt descriptor for the first half of this production.
Fortunately, the second act was better. The cast seemed to settle into the show, some of the sound problems were rectified, and there were some sweet vocals and visuals. Brian Westbrook as The Baker stepped up to the plate, leading lovely renditions of No More (with Dustin Britt as the Mysterious Man) and No One is Alone (with Brittany DeChristofaro as Cinderella). Unfortunately, these moments in the woods came far too late in the production to save it.
A lack of chemistry, some bungling blocking, hit-and-miss vocals, and misjudgments about the show’s structure, made Mark Hopper’s lofty attempt at Into the Woods a downer. No happily ever after here. Just a cautionary tale of what can go wrong when wishes and dreams might be too big.
Into the Woods runs through February 9th at McGregor Hall in Henderson, North Carolina. For more information visit https://www.mcgregorhall.org/shows-events/2020/2/1/into-the-woods-tony-award-winning-musical or visit the RDU on Stage Calendar Page.