If there's one thing half a lifetime of theatergoing can teach you, it is that the urge to either jump up in ovation or walk out in disgust at the play you’re watching comes rather infrequently.
Far fewer productions are drop-dead triumphs or spectacular failures. Most, in fact, settle into that fuzzy groove somewhere between brilliant and crappy, great and wretched, good and bad—what one might call, in gay parlance, “Keri na.”
Because it doesn’t happen often, encountering a superior piece of theater thus becomes all the more memorable.
This year, a handful of shows managed to leap beyond the footlights to galvanize us to our feet: the short-lived “Sa Ngalan ng Anak” of UP Dulaang Laboratoryo (directed by Amiel Leonardia, based on Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons”); Nonon Padilla’s “Belong Puti” for Peta, Layeta Bucoy’s one-act “Ellas Inocentes” in the Virgin Labfest under Tuxqs Rutaquio’s direction; Chris Millado’s restaging of Mario O’Hara’s “Insiang” for Tanghalang Pilipino; Bobby Garcia’s “Avenue Q” for Atlantis Productions.
One more entry will now be added to that list: New Voice Company’s production of the Stephen Sondheim musical “Into The Woods,” which opened a weekend ago at the Music Museum with tremendous verve, expressiveness and artistry.
Dark and complex
Sondheim and James Lapine’s masterwork—a dark and complex interweaving of several fairy tales set to often dissonant, angular music (though by Sondheim standards it’s one of his more tuneful scores)—has enjoyed a long life in the musical repertory ever since its Broadway debut in 1987.
Sondheim, who by this time had assembled a virtual gallery of offbeat characters for his musicals (the serial-killing barber Sweeney Todd, the commitment-phobic Bobby of “Company,” the aging showgirls of “Follies,” the xenophobic shoguns of ancient Japan in “Pacific Overtures”), trained his sights on another group ripe for re-imagining.
He took the Grimms’ most beloved characters—among them Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack (of the Beanstalk mischief) and Little Red Riding Hood—and let them loose as denizens of an enchanted forest, the unhindered atmosphere of which would uncork their fears, passions and prejudices as they crisscrossed each other’s lives. And that’s just Act I.
Act II, about their tangled “ever after” lives, is even more tricky.
All that starry dust-up is presented in this “Into the Woods” with becoming freshness and clarity. There is pleasure to be had in realizing how its director, Rito Asilo, and his gifted ensemble have labored to remain faithful to the material while going to great lengths to put their own idiosyncratic stamp to it.
In its original form, the musical upended its storybook period setting with a winking dose of urban American irony. Witness Sondheim’s impish lyrics (e.g., “Let the moment go/Don’t forget it for a moment, though/Just remembering you’ve had an AND/When you’re back to OR/Makes the OR mean more than it did before,” from “Moments in the Woods”).
This version retains that knowing, bemused tone, but makes it somehow softer, gentler, more heartfelt. That approach robs some lines of their laugh tracks, but it’s a good tradeoff for the greater sense of empathy that the musical generates.
The Narrator, typically an Old Man, is now played by a smart, stylishly dressed young woman (Missy Maramara), underlining the contemporary bent of this version. The smaller staging, too, scales down the visual sprawl, giving this “Into the Woods” a fair semblance of chamber intimacy.
In Gino Gonzales’ giant playhouse of a set, the fairy-tale characters have become real people, hemmed in by recognizable regrets, restrictions and dead-end expectations.
In particular, the central roles of the child-desiring Baker and Baker’s Wife, superbly played by Michael Williams and Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo, evince a deep humanity, much helped along by the two actors’ seamless chemistry and gleaming voices.
Williams is notably moving in “No More,” where he squares off dramatically with his estranged father (Tommy Abuel, wearing his gravitas light and easy).
A couple of young actors shine just as brightly as these veterans. Joaqui Valdes and Julia Abueva, both newcomers to Sondheim, are standouts as Jack and Red Riding Hood, respectively.
Jack’s coming-of-age song “Giants in the Sky” receives an engagingly bittersweet reading from Valdes. Abueva, meanwhile, all crisp precociousness and self-assurance, convinces you her Red Riding Hood can, indeed, survive ravishment by the Wolf (Jamie Wilson, also Cinderella’s Prince).
Ah, Wilson: he’s one of a couple of casting choices you could cavil about. Wilson is a first-rate actor, something he displays to flamboyant, lascivious effect as the Wolf.
However, he’s not been blessed with the best pipes around. Which means that “Agony,” the made-for-laughs duet sung by Cinderella’s Prince and Rapunzel’s Prince (John Mulhall) is an exercise in bated breath for the audience.
Will Wilson croak? He doesn’t; he merely holds his top notes unsteadily. Mulhall carries the moment with his polished sound. But even in this, Wilson flashes more presence and personality.
Cast against type
As The Witch, Lynn Sherman’s textured, smoky voice works overtime with songs that promiscuously roam the scales, from her rap-like number in the prologue to the harrowing ballad “Stay with Me” and the soulful “Lament” in Act II.
A touch of laboriousness informs these numbers, but Sherman, cast against the usual type for this role (the regal Lauchengco-Yulo played the part in the 1992 Repertory Philippines production, and Bernadette Peters and Vanessa Williams did it on Broadway), by and large delivers.
Complementing her contralto are two sparkling sopranos, Cathy Azanza as a winning Cinderella and Angela Padilla as Rapunzel. Juno Henares is a scenery-chewing blast as Cinderella’s stepmother.
Unfortunately, Madeleine Nicolas—an accomplished actress who made her mark in Filipino-language plays and zarzuelas—still seems on tentative footing as Jack’s mother, though her comic putdowns often fly.
About the only complaint one could have of this production is that its sublime payoff comes after a nearly three-hour running time.
“As overgrown as the forest” was how the former New York Times drama critic Frank Rich described the musical’s book (its spoken lines). True—though when one arrives at “Into the Woods’” most magical juncture, the argument becomes moot.
The moment in question is “No One Is Alone,” when the Baker, Jack, Red Riding Hood and Cinderella, all now bereft of loved ones, begin the process of reaching out to each other and contemplating lives as newfound friends (“Mother cannot guide you/Now you’re on your own/Only me beside you/Still you’re not alone...”)
Williams, Valdes, Abueva and Azanza, their voices blending in impeccable harmony, create a scene of magnificent aural and emotional splendor—one of those spine-shivering moments in theater when you tell yourself, “I’m damn lucky to be here.”
For a show of sustained excellence capped by that profound moment, polite “Keri na” applause won’t do. Only a full-scale ovation will.
“Into The Woods” runs until Dec. 8 at Music Museum. Call NVC at 8896695, 896549, 8990630, 8919999 or visit www.newvoicecompany.com