What do you want? What do you want more than anything else in world? And to what ends are you willing to go in order to get it?
I believe there are three kinds of musicals: good, bad, and overdone. They overlap in a two-way Venn diagram—both good and bad musicals can be overdone, but good musicals cannot simultaneously be bad. In my books, Into the Woods is a good musical. The lyrics are smart, and the music does as much talking as the people do. This is a good musical before it even gets off the page, and that makes the actor’s job that much easier because the play is already doing a lot of work for you. It doesn’t mean the performers have an excuse to slack off, but the starting place is already that much more polished than a musical with a plot full of holes and awkward lyrics.
Into the Woods also plays with important themes: wishing, wanting, getting and not getting, and the sacrifices in between. Who deserves a happy ending? And define what “happy” means, while you’re answering that first question.
Needless to say, Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics don’t cut anybody any slack. All performers have to be perfectly on top of the game at all times; put one note out of place and the whole thing goes up in flames. Get it right, and the result is just this side of magic.
Bringing Into the Woods to life goes into the hands of a large cast with some pretty polished pedigrees; almost across the board are people with professional training backgrounds, many of whom have done prolific work in professional and semi-professional theatre. Particular stand-outs are Amy Swift as the Baker’s Wife and Colin Asuncion as Jack for their heartfelt, grounded, and yet undeniably human performances. But this is, in essence, a company endeavour. All the intertwined plotlines—Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, and the Baker and his wife—do not hold up without each other. There are few large group scenes, yet everyone is connected to everyone else. The talented cast handle this three-hour monster-musical with a baffling amount of energy and good humour.
The concept behind the design of the show is both aesthetically and thematically a good idea: the whole thing happens inside a cuckoo clock. Characters emerge and disappear through the various mechanisms, trap doors, and ramps that might be seen in an elaborate clock, all while a giant clock face overhead signals the looming midnight countdown. The costumes are also beautiful when they need to be and wonderfully practical when they aren’t meant to be pretty, with special mentions going to Milky White (Maksym Shkvorets), Jack’s cow.
My issues with Hart House’s Into the Woods emerge from its strengths. The set is gorgeous, but gimmicky. The cuckoo birds who help Cinderella are distracting because there are so many of them and while most of them work, some of them don’t. Also, the big clock, the central thematic timepiece of the play, is stuck at midnight. It still has some impact, but I don’t know that it was used to its full advantage. I think the fancy lighting was meant to make up for that, but for me, at least, less is more.
Into the Woods runs at Hart House Theatre until January 30.
This article has been corrected from the print edition. It incorrectly stated that Into the Woods ran at Hart House until last Wednesday. The musical runs until Jan. 30. A notice will be printed in the January 25, 2016 issue.