By Paige Allen
July 13, 2019
Two notable concert productions went up in the past week, the Cleveland Musical Theatre production of Into the Woods at The Town Hall (July 8, 2019) and the Encores! Off Center production of Promenade at New York City Center (July 10-11, 2019). Although neither concert fully satisfied me, my quibbles with Promenade come down to matters of taste whereas the issues with this production of Into the Woods were matters of professionalism, leaving the show at best sloppy and at worst unacceptable.
The semi-staged concert format is a special one, presenting unique challenges to a team. Rehearsal periods are condensed and actors use music stands and scripts as they are not expected to be fully memorized. However, productions “in concert” can be just as powerful as their fully-staged siblings. In fact, part of the appeal of the concert format is to give the audience a chance to focus on the text and the music as performed by incredible artists without the spectacle of a fully-staged piece.
Concert productions can often pull together all-star casts for one- or two-night events. This was the case with Into the Woods in Concert, directed by Cleveland Musical Theatre Artistic Director Miles J. Sternfeld. A good amount of hype surrounded the production because of its star-studded cast which included Alice Ripley as the Witch, Kate Shindle as the Baker’s Wife, Tony Yazbeck as the Baker, Betsy Wolfe as Cinderella, Maureen McGovern as Cinderella’s Stepmother, Pamela Myers as Jack’s Mother, Lee Wilkof as the Mysterious Man, and Julie James as the Narrator. The entire cast was made up of performers who were born and raised in Ohio or who had gone to college there.
The concert was ultimately a night of extremes with some performers flying high and others, well, not.
Most of the lead performances were strong. Shindle gave the Baker’s Wife dry humor and a powerful voice (I don’t think a performance of “Maybe They’re Magic” has ever garnered as much applause), and Yazbeck’s borderline operatic voice filled out the Baker’s vocal line with a rich texture. Jordan Matthew Brown as Jack and Caitlin Houlahan as Little Red Riding Hood played children without caricature and continually impressed with their vocal talents as well. Wolfe was amusing and self-aware as Cinderella, leaning into humor when she spoke to the birds or “fell” in the woods. Matt Bogart’s Wolf was dynamic and brazenly sexual, and the princes (Zach Adkins as Rapunzel’s and John Riddle as Cinderella’s) almost stole the show with their humorous narcissism and velvety voices.
The whole production, however, felt like it was always teetering on the edge of disaster. Several times staging and timing were awkward or delayed, and some songs overflowed with tension as the cast tried to stay with the music. McGovern at times delayed or missed her vocal line completely and read her lines as though she had never seen them before. Ripley missed her entrance to come on stage twice, leaving her fellow actors stranded, and her “Stay with Me” was not at all with the orchestra. Ripley eventually settled into the character of the Witch and gave a vocally powerful (if not precise) performance (her strongest moments were during “Last Midnight”), but she did not sparkle quite as brightly as one would have expected from her.
Certainly, the production only had three days to rehearse, but that is hardly an excuse for sloppiness. Plenty of actors gave tight performances, and having a script in hand should make it less likely that an actor will miss an entrance, not more.
Yes, Into the Woods is a hard score to sing, but the show, written by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, is also extremely well-known. The mistakes in timing were abundantly obvious because the score of Into the Woods is so ubiquitous; probably 90% of the audience has seen a production before, if not worked on one.
Presenting a concert with a level of informality is one thing (Shindle and Wolfe knew how to use the “we’re all having fun here” energy effectively), and the audience seemed fairly supportive of the hiccups and inaccuracies, but I wonder what I would have been thinking had I paid for a full price ticket.
On the other hand, Promenade, directed by Laurie Woolery, was blissfully in sync. The show was a bit more staged than Into the Woods in Concert, as it had more playing space, multiple levels, and a bit of a set (it also had a longer rehearsal period). While the cast of Into the Woods dressed in evening wear (costumes designed by Sydney Gallas and provided by Rent the Runway), the costumes of Clint Ramos made the absurd and exaggerated world of Promenade come to life.
Written by María Irene Fornés with music by Al Carmines, Promenade has nowhere near the kind of name recognition as Into the Woods, but it, too, was created by legendary figures in the theatre and features a complicated score. Promenade is equal parts absurdist play and operetta, exploring class structures, performativity, and unrequited love, among other things.
The cast of Encore! Off Center’s Promenade was remarkably talented across the board. Particular stand-outs include James T. Lane and Kent Overshown as the prisoners 105 and 106, respectively; Mark Bedard who played the Jailer with vaudevillian physical comedy; and Bonnie Milligan as Miss Cake, Marcy Harriell as Miss U, Carmen Ruby Floyd as Miss I, Soara-Joye Ross as Miss O, and Bryonha Marie Parham as the Servant, all of whom did a wide range of vocal gymnastics to sing their particular roles.
Given Fornés’s unique practice in creating Promenade (writing the names of stock characters and locations on notecards and picking them randomly to determine the next scene), the resultant show is a collage. Without a compelling plot or characters to consistently care about (at times, I cared about 105, 106, and the Mother, played by Saundra Santiago), I found it difficult to stay engaged with the piece. The songs were often long, operatic, repetitive, and ironic, sung by characters without any real defining features other than representing the vanity and frivolity of the wealthy or commenting on it.
While one doesn’t need to “understand” every moment of a piece to appreciate it, I still struggled to grasp onto something other than the talented vocalists and the repeated messages of the piece: wealth makes you dumb and the poor get played by the system.
That being said, as I walked out of the theater, I heard many audience members discussing the performance and what it meant with their friends. If a play can create conversation that outlasts the time in the theater, I suppose it has, on some level, succeeded.
BCS-friendliness rating: N/A
I’m not giving a true BCS-friendliness rating for both of these concerts since they are finished.
I will say I paid a total of $75.40 well in advance for Into the Woods in Concert to sit in the very back row of the balcony, which I regret; there ended up being cheaper options on TodayTix closer to the performance, and I question if what I saw was worth that much money.
The ticket to Promenade was only $34.25 (including fees). I sat in the far back but felt closer than in The Town Hall during Into the Woods. Overall, worth it.