Happy Ever After: Into the Woods

Friday, December 26, 2014

Let me start this blog post by saying that I am a huge Sondheim fan.  I know that pretty much everyone who enjoys musical theatre is a Sondheim fan, but I feel that I need to say it.  I have listened to Into the Woods countless times, watched the stage version on Netflix, and fallen in love, time and again, with both the score, and the way the Original Broadway Cast worked their magic on it. That being said, I was cautiously excited to hear that it would be made into a film.  I saw the way that Les Mis became mainstream, and I could suddenly discuss it with my non-musical friends, and I hoped that this Sondheim adaptation would need end up like the slim downed, anemic version of Sweeney Todd released in 2007. 

My best friend, her mother, and I skipped up to the really nice movie theater near us, the one with the Lay-Z-Boy recliners instead of movie theater seating, only to be disappointing that the Christmas day showings had all sold out! "Don't these people know that I love this musical more than a majority of the people who have tickets, the people who have never heard it, the people who wouldn't know Sondheim from a sonogram?!?!?!!?" I was dismayed and lost, but we found another theater, one with less comfortable seats (though they still let us bring our blankets in) and made it without a moment to spare. 

The movie began, and I was hoping for that familiar hit, followed by "Once upon a time", but they started right in with the speaking.  The music came in very shortly after, and we were off.  Like I said, I was in love with the original cast, the comic overly dramatic voice of the bakers wife, the beauty of Bernadette Peters' balance of the good and bad of the witch, and the chubby little blonde "Little Red".  None of these characters were to be found.  We had a much drier, almost sad bakers wife, played by Emily Blunt, a witch played so masterfully by Meryl Streep that you could see the turmoil in her eyes, and a little red that had all the wit and fire, with a more realistic look, reminding us that while innocent, she was not quite so delicate and fragile. 

There was music cut here and there, but ultimately the show had to be streamlined, I know of productions where the audience left at the end of act I thinking it was a long one act musical.  The lack of the reprise of "Agony" left me longing for the comic relief preparing us for the less happy second act, and the narrations and lessons that everyone shares through song were certainly missed, but overall the film delivered. 

I had in my mind exactly what each of these characters would sound like.  None of them really channeled their OBC counterparts, but as an actor that's what we strive for, and this cast managed to recreate these characters, bringing them to life in a completely new way, while still delivering in all regards. 

There were certainly standouts, Emily Blunt as the bakers wife both sounded beautiful and acted the role impeccably.   Joanna Gleason certainly gave us the brash, loud, domineering bakers wife, who seemed just as likely to smack the baker over the head as to kiss him, while Blunt delivered us a tender loving wife, though I did miss Gleason's "I NEED YOUR SHOES!"

Meryl Streep nailed the role I was most concerned about before seeing the cast lists.  Bernadette Peters borders on perfection in my mind, and her witch was so flawlessly played.  Streep certainly took the character in another direction, one that would not have worked as well on stage but translated beautifully up close.  Her rendition of "The Last Midnight" was easily one of my favorite moments of the entire film, she perfectly balanced the anger and sadness portrayed by the text and score. 

Anna Kendrick as Cinderella was the casting I was most concerned about, even after having seen her kill in Camp and in Pitch Perfect.  She always portrayed a more contemporary commercial sound to me, not the light, slightly operatic tones called for by the role of Cinderella, but she really pulled through, mixing in her own vocal style, to find a happy medium and delivered a stellar performance.  "On the Steps of the Palace" was another incredibly well done scene, a very unique take on it that, again, employed a magic that film can capture, to take the scene out of time, a very brilliant take. 

All in all Into the Woods was done justice by this film.  Sondheim doesn't always translate well to the masses, his use of leitmotif is often missed, the delicate intricacies of his harmonies and the disjunction in the nature of his melodic lines are often misunderstood by audiences looking for something requiring slightly less thought throughout, but the beauty of the score will capture anyone who cares to spend the time listening. Making it to see this show was a star on the top of my Christmas Tree, and while it will never replace in my mind the perfection of the original production, or the joy I get seeing it on stage, I will be adding this to "sure I'll watch that again" list. 

Ladies and Gentlemen, may I have you attention per-lease!

Monday, October 6, 2014

While NBC made a valiant effort with their live performance of The Sound of Music, they missed the mark on a few things that really make musical theatre magical to so many of us.  PBS took the torch and rekindled the live televised performance with their broadcast of the New York Philharmonic's "Concert Version" of Sweeney Todd.  Right from the beginning, the broadcast let us know, that just like the original production of Sondheim's "black operetta", this production would break all the rules of what the audience would expect.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is one of the twentieth century's most brilliant works of music and theatre.  Breaking from the tradition of the "feel good family musical", Sweeney Todd tells the story of a deranged barber and his partner in crime, a baker woman named Mrs. Lovett, who kill patrons and turn their bodies into Mrs. Lovett's Famous Meat Pies.  A black operetta is a sublime description of the score, described as such by Sondheim himself, and this production pays homage to the beauty and complexity of the writing.

The characters are caricatures of Victorian London, the struggling working class, the crazed beggar, the wrongfully imprisoned, the crooked officer and judge, the altruistic sailor, the sweet ingenue, and the longing child.  The costuming, staging, and "set design" for this particular production take the Victorian complexities, and combine them with a contemporary grit, bringing to light how universal these characters are.  The simple placement of a leather jacket and a paper poster advertising "MEAT PIES" speaks volumes about where society sits in the present day.

Ultimately what shines in Sweeney Todd is the music.  Bryn Terfel sings the title role against Emma Thompson as Mrs. Lovett.  The lead roles are filled with accomplished actors and musicians including Broadway legend, Audra McDonald as the beggar woman.  The New York Philharmonic brougt the gorgeous score to life, and took no back seat to the vocalists.  Sondheim's score tells as much about the plot progression in the music as it does in the lyrics through the use of brilliant orchestration and a use of leitmotif unmatched in musical theatre.

This production is not one for the kids, nor those looking for a happy ending.  Sweeney is often crude, brash, and at points disturbing, but rich and beautiful at the same time.  This performance is beautiful and brilliant, truly a triumph of creativity.

Watch the performance on PBS here!

The Carpet Ride Begins

Monday, September 29, 2014

Another fall is here, and instead of worrying about the changing leaves, our actors on stage are learning to keep an eye out for street rats, snakes, and sand storms! No we have not relocated to the LCA to the Middle East, but we transform our minds into Agrabah three days a week for rehearsal!

After our first week of rehearsal, I am astounded at the talent we have in our young actors, and can't wait to dig in further! They transported us with the opening tune "Arabian Nights" and their amazing voices filled the LCA with the sounds of, dare I say, "A Whole New World"!

You do not want to miss this magical family favorite!

November 21st - 7 PM
November 22nd - 2 PM
November 23rd - 4 PM

$10 Adults
$8 Seniors
$5 children
Tickets on sale to the public October 27th, available at the front desk of the South Shore Emilson YMCA