Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
I love all of Stephen Sondheim's music, not necessarily the shows, but this show with his score and a book by James Lapine is one of my favorites. Between fall of 2014 and spring of 2015 I saw Into the Woods three times: twice on stage and the movie. Both of the stage productions compromised the musicone had only a piano with a reduced cast, while the other had five people in the pit with a full-sized castbut both of them better served the piece better than this production. Emphasizing singing over acting throws this show way out of balance. The characters are written more three dimensional than they are in the original tales, which suggests strong actors who can sing rather than opera singers. Still, in this music-centered production, there is something to be discovered, even by an old codger like me who has traveled these wooded glades many times.
I won't comment on individual performances because these roles do not closely match the talents of the cast. There are a lot of places where lyrics are all but inaudible. That is because Sondheim's lyrics are very dense and conceived to be mic'd and sound mixed. There are a few moments when wide open singing creates an exciting moment, such as the second half of The Baker's "No More" and the end of "Moments in the Woods." Also problematic are the lines for Cinderella's Mother and The Giant, both heard from offstage.
For all the same reasons, it is very hard to assess Maestro Mark Sforzini's conducting. The orchestra plays well for him, but tempos have to be judged for singers not ideally cast and at times seem a little sluggish.
Stage director Raymond Zilberberg does a good job on a fairly narrow stage, keeping all the characters moving in and out of the situations they are involved in. I like the idea that when a character dies, they run off stage into the auditorium and down the set of stairs that ushers the audience into the hall. Brian Dudkiewicz's scenic design, beautifully rendered, is very effective: an open book, discolored with age, and a prominent tree in front of that. Costumes by Wardrobe Witchery are equally effective. Lighting design by Keith Arsenault is well imagined, with wig and makeup design by Nottingham Designs.
St. Petersburg Opera has been ending its season with musical theater after a season of three operas as long as I have been aware of the company. More and more opera companies are expanding their repertories with works from Broadway. Some are effective, mostly ones that premiered before the 1960s when musicals were not always mic'd and composers and lyricists might expect to cast legitimate voices. The Rodgers and Hammerstein canon, Kiss Me, Kate, Kismet, Man of La Mancha, Les Misérables, Most Happy Fella, My Fair Lady are all titles that would be effective in a music-heavy performance. Sadly, I do not think Into the Woods works well in this setting. Next year's The Music Man should prove to be a much better choice.
St. Petersburg Opera presents Into the Woods through July 9, 2017, at the Palladium Theater, 253 Fifth Ave. N., St. Petersburg, FL. For more information see www.stpeteopera.org.