Sometimes, less isn't just more – it's way, way more. From the get-go, Theatre Horizon co-founder Matthew Decker wanted to direct a stripped-down version of "Into the Woods," the complex mish-mash of fairy tales told in the 1987 musical composed by Stephen Sondheim with a script by James Lapine.
On Theatre Horizon's intimate (but not tiny) stage, Decker had little choice but "stripped-down." There's no room for the big woods that hold these fairy tales, or the many locations within them – grandmother's house, a bakery, a witch's garden, a castle for a ball, and more.
In order for it to work at the theater company's Norristown home, less had to become more. What Decker has created, with a bang-up cast of professional locally-based actors who play their own instruments as part of the show's orchestra, is some stage magic through storytelling. You don't need an actual giant to threaten you from the heavens when you have a bunch of people below cowering in fear, to show you the effect.
The Theatre Horizon version, which opened Thursday night, is one of two different East Coast productions of stripped-down but richly told "Into the Woods." The other runs Off-Broadway, presented by Roundabout Theatre Company. By coincidence, it employs many of the same elements as Theatre Horizon's, down to the instrument-playing cast. The excellent New York production, which I saw a few nights before Horizon's, is different in tone – "Into the Woods" at Theatre Horizon is more kinetic and feels bigger, even though the playing space is about the same.
But both point out that you don't need high-flying stagecraft to make magic in front of a live audience. You need good stories and good storytelling. "Into the Woods" is all about the stories, folk tales we know and pass down, about witches and giants, Rapunzel and Jack's beanstalk, a childless baker and his wife, Cinderella and her nasty half-sibs, Little Red Riding Hood and grandmother and the wolf at the door.
Once you remove the fancy stage frills, what's left is to make the stories tell themselves – not a simple task with or without big production values when all the tales are conjoined. More than that, "Into the Woods" gets to "happily ever after" in the first part and then, somewhat cynically, the second half explores whether that idea is a scam. Decker, in his direction, makes the stories and their outcomes pop in a relatively small space with Maura Roche's huge set of shelves in the background; they hold books and clocks and lamps and gee-gaws, and they also provide portals for exits and entrances and all but hide the orchestra. Amanda Morton, the musical director who plays piano as the lead instrument the whole way though, sits by the shelving with her back to the audience.
Most actors play dual roles, and Lauren Perigard's simple costumes give them just enough time to swap a headpiece or remove an overcoat to switch roles, sometimes comically. The sound design by Nick Kourtides may be the crispest I've heard this season – a good thing, too, because the voices of Rachel Camp (the baker's wife and also an on-stage harpist in the orchestra), Liz Filios (Cinderella), Kristine Fraelich (the witch), Kala Moses Baxter (Jack's mother) and Leigha Kato (Little Red), are perfectly suited to Sondheim's music and come across beautifully.
Same for the guys, who also get their moments – one of the best being "Agony," the funny ditty of one-upmanship sung by the two princes, Ben Michael and Alex Bechtel (who also excels in cud-chewing as a cow). Michael Doherty (Jack), Steve Pacek (the baker) and Charlie DelMarcelle (the narrator) round out a list of highly visible theater artists in town.
Tickets for this show began selling well before the first preview and, combined with the seats held by Theatre Horizon subscribers, the company has a hit on its hands. People love different takes on fantasies they're familiar with, and they love Sondheim, and I assume they're turned on to the show because a star-studded movie of the musical plays across the nation now. My qualms about the show – it goes on far too long and Sondheim's fabulously witty lyrics become ambiguous in their messages about life – are minor compared to my disdain for the bloated film, which takes everything magical about the stage show and makes it stupefyingly literal.
But if the movie's sending people into the theater to check out the live musical, so much the better. At Theatre Horizon, they'll see just how much more you can make from less – and how magical that can be.
"Into the Woods" runs through March 1 at Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb St., Norristown. 610-283-2230 or www.theatrehorizon.org.
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