Sondheim's 'Woods' Goes Mu at Park Square Theatre, with Mixed Results

First and foremost, let me just say that I have always freakin’ loved Stephen Sondheim’s (and James Lapine’s) musical ode to Fairy Tales, Into the Woods.
I’ve seen it performed countless times at various venues across the U.S. and – God help me! – I may have been dragged (that Chloroform is strong, vicious stuff, I tell ya!) to Canada a couple of times and seen it there, too, along with Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (Jesus, people! Get off your asses and go rent the damned movie and be done with it, for God’s sake!)
With that – sigh –I will get into the Mu Performing Arts performance of Woods. First off, I was a baaaaaad theatre critic, this time around. I didn’t do any research regarding this particular performance at the Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, which runs July 20-Aug. 5.
So, yeah, I’ll say it, I was just a little bit jarred by the fact that nearly everyone in the cast was Asian. According to the production program, Mu is “the Midwest’s foremost pan-Asian performing arts organization.”
Ok…so Jack, he of the beanstalk, is Asian. Interesting casting choice. Why not? I mean, as a college student, I watched my very-talented gay peer play the role of the Witch (originated by the great Bernadette Peters) at UNO.
I’m a very open-minded, enlightened individual. I can dig it. But then I started noticing that, as I mentioned earlier, almost everyone was of Asian descent. It didn’t take anything away from the production. Like I said, not having read any of my e-mails or press releases or the program, for that matter, I didn’t know what to expect.
I know, shame, shame on me.
The performances were, for the most part, solid all-around. Normally, the character of the Witch is the standout. Yet, Katie Bradley didn’t make much of an impression. There was a little bit too much shrill screaming.
However, I rather liked Randy Reyes and Sheena Janson as the Baker and the Baker’s Wife, respectively. They displayed great chemistry and terrific comedic flair.
I wasn’t particularly crazy about Maxwell Chonk Thao’s Jack. There were moments, such as his rendition of “Giants in the Sky,” that should have been grandiose, majestic and inspiring.
Instead, it seemed that the young actor wanted to bring a little too much of The Funny to the table. And that’s fine, during certain moments, but “Giants in the Sky” was a staple in my parents’ cars and household and I’d constantly have my dad rewind the cassette tape, over and over again, because it just gave a young lad like me a sense of wonder and awe. This rendition, however, I’m sorry to say, made me cringe a little bit. Too much mugging, if you ask me, and not enough heart.
And there’s no shortage of heart in Woods.
Situations arise in this musical, especially during the second act, which are devastating, brutal and tragic.
At the same time, there is plenty of comedy to keep things light when they need to be.
It’s not a perfect musical, but is a great one.
The bad news, however, is this: For being such a timeless tale, it seems dated. Let’s face the facts: Fairy Tale Satires have been done to death, since Woods made its debut in 1986. The gazillion “Shrek” films are a prime (if overrated) example of this, as are “The Princess Bride” and “Stardust.”
With that being said, Woods was, in a way, ahead of its time. It’s just not as, well, timeless as it used to be.
Then again, that’s not necessarily a criticism. It’s just a fact of showbiz life.
And if this Mu production doesn’t quite soar to the great heights of the hundreds upon hundreds of performances that have come before it, or even some of the better carbon copies that followed it, it certainly can’t be faulted for trying.
It’s not an impossible feat. In fact, it’s possible; very, very possible.
After all, as anyone who has had the great pleasure of watching Sondheim’s masterpiece, anything can happen in the Woods.