After almost a decade of selling out shows in their very intimate hole-in-the-wall theatre on Sutter Street, the San Francisco Playhouse moved to bigger and better digs on Post St two years ago. It’s allowed them to expand their audience and scope of production, but they’re also going through some growing pains. When they mounted “My Fair Lady” in the old space, back in 2012, the stage was so small but economically used that there was no expectation of big dance numbers. The intent was also to be a pared down production: only a pair of pianos accompanied the actors in song. It made up for what it lacked in flash with psychological insight.
This year’s production of “Into the Woods,” which features terrific singing but almost no dancing, and a relatively unimaginative use of such a large space, would have played fine in the old space. The new space just magnifies what’s missing: the stage is big enough for elaborate dance numbers, but there aren’t any; there’s a multi-piece band, but it sounds like it’s still in rehearsal. The multi-purpose set would have been impressive in a smaller space, but since it makes the woods ever-present on stage – there’s nothing to differentiate when we’re in our out of the woods – it seems almost thoughtlessly simple. The space is bigger so we expect the production to be bigger, too, but it isn’t quite big enough: it often seems like a meagre imitation of a Broadway show. That the costumes are campy, and don’t always quite fit the Princes, only adds to this problem. This is still a thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable production of “Into the Woods,” a musical with such clever and playful songs and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim that you need only do justice to the music to make it worthwhile, but it doesn’t do justice to the story.
The musical ties together four fairy tales – Little Red Riding Hood (Corinne Proctor), Cinderella (Monique Hafen), Rapunzel (Noelani Neal), and Jack and the Bean Stalk (Tim Homsley) – with the story of a Baker (Keith Pinto) and his Wife (El Beh) who want a child but have been cursed with infertility by a local witch (Safiya Fredericks). It’s payback for a crime committed by the Baker’s father whom he never even met but who stole from the witch’s garden (“He was robbing me,/Raping me,/ Rooting through my rutabaga,/ Raiding my arugula and Ripping up the rampion ”).The only way to lift the spell is to go into the woods to find a series of treasures the witch requires for another spell: a cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold.
The play opens on three different simultaneous scenes. Stage right, gathered by the fireplace, there’s Cinderella watching her evil stepmother and step-sisters prepare to head to the King’s festival, in hideous plastic gowns, while Cinderella dreams of going herself, and is working up the courage to head into the woods to get there. Stage left, there’s the goofy and dim Jack, whose mother (Maureen McVerry) instructs him to head into the woods to sell his cow (and only friend), Milky White. And centre stage, the Baker and his Wife stand by their oven, where they first hand Red Riding Hood some sweets to take into the woods to grandmother’s house, and then encounter the witch, who curses them, and sends them into the woods to break the curse. There’s a lot going on here, but director Susi Damilano keeps each of the locations clear, tying together the stories without confusing them. This, and the finale, are also the only numbers that feature almost the entire cast, and they’re full of zest.
All of this action happens in front of the backdrop of the woods, a series of trees that crawl about the stage, creating lots of smaller spaces. But there’s no visual indicator that they’re getting deeper into the woods, and that the deeper they get, the darker things get. While Damilano makes great use of the corners and spaces on the stage in the first act (Rapunzel, for example, is locked away in a tower stage left), she seems to have run out of steam by the second half, after all the characters have gotten their wishes and must deal with the unexpected consequences. There are far too many static scenes where the actors stand stiffly and awkwardly, either in silence or during a song. There also isn’t enough foreshadowing in the first act of what’s to come in the second: Cinderella’s Prince’s wandering eye (“I was raised to be charming not sincere”) comes out of nowhere, as does Rapunzel’s mental breakdown. There are enough opportunities in the script to telegraph what’s coming, but Damilano misses them. When things get crazy in the second act, it doesn’t pack the punch it should, either emotionally or comically.
El Beh as the Baker’s Wife, who also appeared in last season’s musical, “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson,” gives a standout performance, as a woman full of gumption and grit, determined to do whatever it takes to be able to have a child. She ignores her husband’s command that she wait at home while he goes into the woods: she knows he’ll need her help, after all. Beh can do it all: sing, joke, and bring on the emotion. The Baker’s Wife is a woman on a mission, which makes it all the funnier when in the second act, she falls prey to Cinderella’s lecherous Prince. Keith Pinto also has great stage presence as the stalwart Baker, not quite sure having a child is worth all the hassle. Safiya Fredericks, as the Witch, steals many scenes when in her hunched over, dirtied state, spewing out amusing rhymes in time with the beat (“So there’s no more fuss/And there’s no more scenes /And my garden thrives–/You should see my nectarines! /But I’m telling you the same/ I tell Kings and Queens:/ Don’t ever never ever/ Mess around with my greens! Especially the beans.”). The gratingly high-pitched, overly-eager Corinne Proctor as Red Riding Hood and the head-jutting, cluelessness that Tim Homsley exhibits as Jack are both a little over-the-top, but I think that’s the point. The talented cast more than makes up for what’s lacking in the direction.
For tickets, visit the SFPlayhouse website. They offer discounts for students, seniors, educators, and military personnel.