For the past two summers, the folks at San Francisco Playhouse have entertained and delighted theater-goers with freshly reimagined takes on the works of Broadway composing legends Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe. This summer, they’re giving us Sondheim — and if you know anything about musical theatre, you know the name Sondheim. Without him, we wouldn’t have “Sweeney Todd,” the lyrics to “West Side Story” or “Gypsy,” just to name a few of his works. Since composing his first major musical in 1955, the musical mastermind has gone on to win eight Tony Awards, eight Grammy Awards, an Academy Award and a Pulitzer Prize. He is basically the Woody Allen of musical theater.
Concluding the season at SF Playhouse is Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.” Adapted from a book by James Lapine and scored by Sondheim, “Woods” is a musical mashup of the classic tales of the Brothers Grimm that plays out in happily-never-afters with a hint of vulgarity (think Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood). The original Broadway production won three Tonys in 1988, and the revival took home two more in 2002. Come December, Disney will be releasing a star-studded film adaptation of the musical starring the likes of Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp.
There is something about the work that has allowed it to age both timelessly and effortlessly in the past 30 years. That’s not to say, however, that the task of properly crafting a Sondheim production of this caliber is an easy one by any means.
There are several wonderful things that one could say about SF Playhouse’s production of “Into the Woods.” For one, there are some Broadway-worthy voices in the ensemble — most notably those of Monica Hafen as Cinderella and Keith Pinto as the Baker. Second, the set and the lighting designed by Nina Ball and Michael Oesch, respectively, beautifully reflect the storybook setting they seek to embody. Third, the musical score and script are to die for — although, that is due primarily to the genius of Sondheim and Lapine. Collectively, however, the production falls quite flat in comparison to the works staged by the regional powerhouse in the past.
It is the utter lack of consistency in this production of “Woods” — both onstage and off — that makes it not work. As composed and written by Sondheim and Lapine, the musical boasts a large ensemble cast with equally balanced roles and quick-tongued dialogue. In SF Playhouse’s production, the ensemble is entirely unbalanced with only a few actors who truly fit the shoes they are trying to fill. Furthermore, the dialogue simply doesn’t flow the way intended by the script. With this, the musical plays out like one of a high school caliber than that of a highly acclaimed regional theater.
The technicalities were also quite off throughout the entirety of the play. The set was noticeably busy with backstage clangs and clatters that were easily heard by the audience on numerous occasions. While technical mistakes can usually be forgiven during a theatrical performance, the slipups occurred one too many times — resulting in a sloppy and unenjoyable evening at the theater.
Ultimately, the only word that comes to mind in describing SF Playhouse’s season-closer is disappointing. “Into the Woods” fails to illustrate the magic of Sondheim and his musical legacy and compares (unironically) grimly to the theater’s past works. Maybe next time, they should keep away from the Sondheims and take on something a little easier.
Michelle Lin covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].