It’s been almost five years since Manila last tasted a professional production of a Stephen Sondheim musical.
There was Repertory Philippines’ restaging of “Sweeney Todd” in 2009—pretty, polished, and propelled by magnificent lead performances from Audie Gemora and Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo. A year later, it was Atlantis Productions’ “A Little Night Music,” a lyrical and glamorous, if occasionally too-somber, affair that will foremost be remembered for screen actress Dawn Zulueta’s triumphant return to the stage as Desiree Armfeldt.
That drought, as certain sectors of the theatergoing community are wont to call it, has finally ended with Upstart Productions’ “Into the Woods,” which has virtually enjoyed a sold-out extended run (up to March 22), no doubt benefiting from the musical’s newfound popularity hereabouts. In a stroke of genius creative planning, it opened within a month after the local premiere of the Disney-sanctioned movie adaptation directed by Rob Marshall and starring the likes of Meryl Streep and Chris Pine.
The genius just about ends there, however; more than anything, this “Into the Woods” is a disappointment—a realization that becomes all the more painful when one thinks of the many things it could have done better.
There’s the venue, for one. In the same vein as the musical’s recent outings in London (at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre) and New York (at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park), Upstart’s “Into the Woods” has also decided to toy with the idea of heightened reality by literally setting the show “in the woods”—in the open-air Kasalikasan Garden in Bonifacio Global City.
But what to make of that almost-bare, multilevel stone platform decorated with some shrubbery and flowering bushes? Even with the outdoor location—surrounding trees, starry night sky, breezy atmosphere—what’s in front of the audience is still very much a stage, devoid of innovation or transformation.
The lights are barely any help to the viewer; who’s singing or which performer to focus on can be a frustratingly confusing business. The cartoonish choreography is reminiscent of high school production numbers.
No acoustic design
Above all, the sound is just bad, and that’s not only in reference to how the sound system totally gave out at least four times on the night we caught this show. It’s just that, no matter how good a piano player Dingdong Fiel is—the man single-handedly provides the music to this production—it still remains a fact that the venue has virtually no acoustic design, and worse, that nothing has evidently been done to remedy that problem.
Which brings us to two schools of thought: One, the technical elements are terrible because of “budget concerns.” If so, then that’s just being totally unfair to the paying audiences.
Two, the technical elements are almost inexistent because that’s the goal of this production—a no-frills, bare-bones, farcical treatment of the musical, where storytelling and music-making are the highlights, akin to the currently running Off-Broadway production in New York.
And yet, this second reason is even more unfounded.
In the pantheon of Sondheim masterpieces (a term that sounds redundant in retrospect), “Into the Woods” must rank near the top in terms of difficulty. For how does one pull off a musical that combines our most beloved fairytale characters—Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (of the Beanstalk fame)—and throws them all in the woods in a tale that’s as overgrown as it is dark and, later on, moralizing?
The trick, one soon realizes, is a perfect brew of silliness and seriousness. Just the former, and “Woods” devolves into surface-level farce; with only the latter, the enchantment becomes lost, the wit and humor that make these silly bedtime-story denizens so human and relatable all reduced to thin air.
The main problem with Upstart’s “Into the Woods” is that both traits want to hog the spotlight for its own. Director Joel Trinidad appears to be of two minds on how he wants to shape his “Woods,” and the result is a perplexingly half-baked mess— one that revels in the musical-as-farce idea with the cheap props and economical costumes, while it also seriously wants to be a full-time fantasy-based dramedy about twisted happy endings.
This identity crisis manifests in the cast, who suffer from a lack of overall direction, their many-varied attacks on their characters never quite cohering into a singular shade.
Take Rachel Alejandro’s portrayal of the Witch, for example. The character, however sinister, is also defined by what she sings: “I’m not good. I’m not nice. I’m just right.”
Yet, Alejandro plays her too pretty, a princess in hag’s clothing, with none of the inflections that would suggest this witch can cast curses and still be of clear mind to point out the mistakes of others. In other words, far from the musical’s moral center, no matter how well she delivers her songs.
Or take Juliene Mendoza as Cinderella’s Prince: a narcissistic, prancing philanderer, all right, but hardly alluring and, well, princely. Or Mica Pineda and Jillian Ita-as as Cinderella and Little Red, respectively— both pristine voices, but never quite full-blooded individuals so much as caricatures.
The only performers who evince genuine human qualities and showcase any growth in their characters are real-life husband-and-wife-tandem Lorenz Martinez and Sheila Valderrama-Martinez as the childless (and nameless) Baker and his wife—ironically, the two roles completely original to this musical.
During the performance we caught, the sound gave out in time for the Baker’s big number near the end of the second act, titled “No More,” when the happily-ever-afters have gone awry and he feels he’s lost everything.
Pardon the cliché, but it was as magical as theater could get watching Martinez sing the number a cappella, “all the lies, the false hopes, the goodbyes, the reverses,” as the song goes, harrowingly fleshed out in his heartfelt, lived-in portrayal.
And most of the cast could definitely learn a thing or two in articulation and interpretation from Valderrama-Martinez’s “Moments in the Woods,” when the Baker’s Wife, after a particularly sensual encounter in the woods, expresses her confusion through tongue-twisting lyrics that go, “Just a moment/One peculiar passing moment/Must it all be either less or more/Either plain or grand?/Is it always ‘or’?/Is it never ‘and’?”
In those lines, Sondheim might have also been hinting at the secret to his shows. His musicals, which so often closely and accurately mimic reality, have always found their purest ground in ambiguity. There are no clear-cut paths and no singular answers, only moral dilemmas, decisions and choices all playing tug-of-war to create vivid, believable reflections of daily life.
In the case of “Into the Woods,” it’s the right blend of self-seriousness and self-parody. Failing that and one gets a production that’s muddled, half-hearted and never striking a real chord in the viewer. One that remains, like the stories at its core, a shallow fairytale of missed opportunities.
Upstart Productions’ “Into the Woods” has remaining performances today and tomorrow at Bonifacio Global City’s Kasalikasan Garden. Call 0917-8116156.
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