note: entire contents copyright 1999 by Irene Sadler
Fans of Stephen Sondheim have yet another oppurtunity to hear what is arguably his best score as the Footlight Club in Jamaica Plain tackles "Into the Woods." Director Bill Doscher presents his vision of this near-classic musical parable with a tight ensemble cast and an eye-catching, multi-leveled set.
The strongest cast member by far is David deCosta, who wears the lead role of the Baker like a comfortable old sweater, following Sondheim's warmly written vocal part note for note. Sometimes confused, sometimes angry but always sincere, DeCosta invites our empathy almost from the start, and encapsulizes the journey from innocence to adulthood the entire show takes within one song, the haunting "No More." Each of the composer's careful pauses, changes in tempo and variations in intensity are lovingly respected by DeCosta, and his efforts tie the piece beautifully together.
Letter-perfect performances are also turned in by Dan Walsh and Derek Clark as two anything-but sincere Prince Charmings, and by Rebecca Consentino as the virginal prisoner Rapunzel. Each of these actors deliver the material in the score in a manner that will make Sondheim fans proud.
This production's biggest problems seem to come from the cast's interpretation of the score itself. Love him or hate him, part of the genius of Herr Sondheim is his painstakingly didactic musical composition. Every pause, every inflection, every emotional outburst is neatly, intricately scripted into the score in an almost inescapable manner. There are rests in the music where an actor should pause, crescendoes where his or her emotions escalate out of control, even tiny notes to dictate where beans are dropped into a hand, or thrown onto the ground. As a former music teacher myself, I've seen many a student wrangle with Sondheim only to come to the erronneous conclusion so favored by actors who resist all that's given to them in the music --- that "Sondheim is just hard." It's interesting, then, that some of the strongest actors in this cast (based upon their stellar performances in other shows at Footlight and elsewhere) are the ones who seem to have the hardest time here --- their instincts as natural actors almost compel them to interpret their lines at the tempo and emotional pace that they see fit. As a result, often the band has no choice, especially in fast-paced material like the show's opening sequence or "Your Fault/The Last Midnight" but to march on merrily without them --- not through any fault of accomplished musical director Jerry Weeme and his orchestra, but because Sondheim's score offers few "escape hatches" where any interpretation but the composer's can be accomodated.
Still, when this cast doesn't "stray from the path" the path rarely strays from them. Anyone who has not yet seen this show will no doubt come away from it surprised and moved. Fans of the piece might be disappointed in minor fashion by the absence of some of the play's showier special effects --- no birds for Cinderella, beanstalk for Jack, collapsing Baker's House or giant's hand falling from offstage here. Perhaps the only really disappointing omission is when characters believed "dead" return in act two without any signifigant costume or scrim effect to seperate them from their "living" castmates. But this production seems to rely more on heart and the human element than its flashier Broadway ancestors. Witness, for example that the part of Milky White, Jack's cow, a role I've always seen played by a piece of fiberglas, is played warmly and convincingly here by actor Derrick Jackson. He manages to steal scenes left and right from all sorts of major characters --- my husband and father both thought he was their favorite part of the show.
I certainly make no claims to be a theater "pro," just a fan.But consider my family and I to be four paying customers (and one armchair critic) who wish to thank everyone at the Footlight Club for tackling a really tough piece. Their efforts resulted in an enjoyable evening, revisiting one of the theater's finest musical scores.