Saturday, January 24, 2015

Community's Production of "Into the Woods" Turns Out Real Nice

By Len Lansbury

If you've been to Quizno's this month, you've probably seen the posters outside the Disney Municipal Theatre Center for their little production of "Into the Woods" they're doing. Or better yet, you've probably heard about it from your neighbors. As the city's foremost independent journalist (freelance seemed too dependent) I'm here to tell you that it's a really fun show, the actors are having a good time, and it's probably good for your kids.

Some bigshot musicmaker from Broadway city let Disney do some adjustments of his award-winning musical. Here's the deal: It's a story of four fairy tales--Cinderella, Jack and the beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and one new one about a Baker and his wife--that intersect as each person seeks after their wishes. Cinderella wants to go to the ball, Jack and his mother wish for prosperity, Little Red just wants bread to bring her granny, and the Baker and his wife want a child. The result is a fast-paced, funny, and surprisingly emotional and complex story about wishes, what it takes to get them, and whether or not getting what you want actually makes you happy.


Most of you probably know that it's a really good musical. Though I am a respectable independent journalist, I will admit that I have friends who like "Broadway" and "musical theater" and "belting" and "booking", and they tell me "Into the Woods" is the most accessible musical by the incredible rhymer and morally elusive composer Stephen Sondheim, whose musicals "Sweeney Todd", "Company", "A Little Night Music" and many others challenge the happily-ever-after attitude of most musicals with biting wit and complex music. A couple of my Broadway friends also said his work is 'boring' or 'too complicated for me'. I guess I should say they 'were' my friends before I deactivated my myspace in disgust.

I agree with the people who like Sondheim, and "Into the Woods" is one of his best. Throughout the Disney Center's production, I was reminded how smart and beautiful it really is. It takes some getting used to in style, especially if you don't know musicals very much, but the performances and orchestration here are lush and bring the score to life for a contemporary audience. (Also, the script by James Lapine is reduced a little bit but generally remains unmarred.) Sitting down for the first number, a fourteen-minute introduction to the varying plots that culminates in all of the characters heading off into the woods, was completely exhilarating and nearly-perfectly-executed. Disney's sets are ominous and pretty, the costumes are vivid and evocative, and the overall effect is a little dark but pretty much spot-on.

But let's be honest, this is a musical, so the real concern here is not whether the themes are told properly or whether or not the material has inherent value. What really matters is who got cast as the leads. So is Disney's cast the best ever? Did the coolest, most talented, most deserving kids in the school actors in the tri-state area get the right parts?


James Corden and Emily Blunt play the Baker and the Baker's Wife, whose story becomes central to the musical. As the hesitant, stubborn, idiosyncratic Baker, James Corden's turn is comic without clowning, charming without posturing, and touching without being all that deep. He nicely fits this generation's ideal version of the good husband: kinda chubby, sensitive, with a beard. Next to him, Emily Blunt plays the Baker's Wife, a legendary role who wants to be an equal part in her marriage, but who also sees clearly that if she is going to get what she want, she might have to act selfishly. To be effective, the Baker's Wife needs to be both likable and cunning, and Emily Blunt pulls it off nicely. Whether anyone could have been that unabashedly beautiful in feudal fairy-tale land begs verisimilitude, but this is a musical. Could other actresses have done it better? Perhaps. But in a sense Blunt is the perfect choice for this current production. She is just famous enough for us to recognize her and just anonymous enough for us to want to see more of her.


Plenty of girls are gonna be ticked about Anna Kendrick, who plays the to-be-princess Cinderella. Kendrick's voice is mediocre, her look is awkward, and since she never seems to feel anything besides confusion it's difficult to care about her, or to connect with her eventual journey. People including my brother disagree with me about her, and that's fine, I suppose, but she didn't really do it for me. But like Blunt to a much further extent, Kendrick is Hollywood's current darling, and that's how these things work. I remember watching "To Have and Have Not" starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. At the end of the film the gorgeous Bacall leans against a piano and begins to sing. My mother and I, watching the film, burst into unquenchable laughter, hearing this beautiful woman singing in a voice that sounded like the Gettysburg address translated into cow-speak. De gustibus non est disputandum.


The rest of the cast does nicely. Meryl Streep is one of the great divas we cheer for and gives the iconic Witch basically everything she needs. I do wonder, however, if we might cheer too much for the fact that she gets to wear that cool dress and crazy blue hair than we do for her performance of "Children Will Listen". The Princes, played by Chris Pine and handsome blonde doofus, were just great for what we should expect from the Disney Municipal Theater Center--community theater with pretty people.

Johnny Depp had to be in it, because he's neighbors with the director and, I mean, he would feel weird. He's always playing some funny role in the musicals here and honestly, we'd be sad not to see him. It's a matter of comfort rather than artistic boldness that he be a part of it, and isn't that just fine? Jack and Little Red are great kids with some smart acting choices. I haven't mentioned their singing voices, mostly because the sound guy at the Center decided to autotune and adjust a lot of it. So they all sound a little bit like singing robots who like putting unnecessary scoops on melodies that would be fine without them. But it didn't bother me all that much. "It Takes Two", "The Last Midnight", "Moments in the Woods", "Steps of the Palace", and "No One Is Alone" are musical standouts despite.

In the end, no matter qualms about casting or slight changes to the script, it's wonderful to see a great piece of theater transferred to a place where it can be seen by lots of people and given to a new generation.

To be honest, I've always dreamed of seeing a perfect version of "Into the Woods", one that has me guffawing in laughter, sighing in love, and crying like a fool as the girl who came with me holds my arm in confusion at my weirdness. But I haven't seen it yet, and I might never. The really fantastic thing about musicals is that they come back, again and again, and like Passion plays or the pageants of old, they find new casts.


The stage will sometimes be manned by strangers and you will enjoy yourself and walk away with your belly full and your mind distracted. If so, they have done their job. You've had fun. Everybody's happy.

At other times those roles in the pageant might be filled by people who matter to you: the baker you know from town, that witch from next door who's been like a second grandmother to you, your nephew as Jack and your niece as little red. Or someone you don't know but who you've heard is a really good person, and whose virtues become a part of the character they play. Watching these intimate personages on stage, the story becomes different. Being in that theater at that time, you are a part of a bigger story, the story of our tribe, all wishing and wanting and blundering through the woods. When you walk out of that one, you might just know what it means that no one is alone. You might be careful the things you say. You might listen and learn.

Whether or not something like that happens at Disney Municipal Theater Center's production, we'll keep putting it on. We can all keep going and watching people singing and acting and stuff. That's a pretty good place to start.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Question, Part 2: Among the Sleep

I've been thinking about you for a while.

You know who you are. You've dabbled with the addictive Netflix bingeing culture and tasted some hollowness, you're sick of the social media mud pit, and you want a little bit more out of the stories you pay for and consume. As we've talked about before, you have wondered if these video games I play are a new avenue for interesting storytelling and entertainment or if they're a sexist, violent, nerdy dark corner of the male psyche.

When you and I counseled about these things by the marble fountain those months ago, and after we had sat in the rain in Bryant Park for an hour on that dismal afternoon, I kept thinking about this, because I think you deserve a legitimate answer. I gave you a first reply with Child of Light, and I think you've enjoyed it, or at least given it a try. As we knew then, the only way to answer your question was to show you the games that I think have true value, that break the stereotypes of male-centric, exploitative, mindless entertainment, but which are still enjoyable and provide a great experience.

The next one is called “Among the Sleep,” a kickstarter-funded indie first-person puzzle and horror game produced by Krillbite Studios. The game started as a university-level project, and later they got support enough to make it into a full title. (If you are worried about games being unartistic drivel spouted out by huge soulless companies, you should know that this kind of story is common. The gaming world is full of tiny teams making games that are able to spread just as widely as AAA titles. It's an underdog-friendly world, and the indie game scene is thriving.)

In “Among the Sleep”, you are a two years old, and it is your birthday. Following a rather glum birthday party attended only by your mother, who is interrupted by an angry knock at the door and comes back without explanation, she sets you to bed early and you wake up in the middle of the night to find your Teddy Bear dragged into the dark and the house transforming around you into the place of your nightmares. When you free Teddy from almost-drowning in the washing machine, he tells you what you already know: you need to find your mother. The rest of your journey is spent exploring the house and the strange landscape of horrors that await you in your dreams.

Being a first-person game, you spend the entire experience from the viewpoint of your character, exploring a 3-dimensional space by looking around and moving. For a new gamer, getting used to this system can be disorienting, nauseating, and frustrating, but unless you're my dad, you'll get the hang of it. First-person exploration allows for a beautiful type of storytelling that only video games achieve: you, as the player, are able to observe and come to conclusions based on what you see. The cameraman doesn't have to frame it a certain way for you (though the experience is much like heightened cinematography) and there can be secrets and insights all around. A child's drawing on the floor can be walked over or you can take a moment and learn something about your character. “Among the Sleep” has some beautiful moments of ambient storytelling, and in this way can serve as a wonderful introduction to the great first-person games, games like Half-Life 2, the Bioshock series, and Dishonored.

The game takes advantage of your position in the world to great effect, and was one of the game's great successes for me. As a toddler, walking upright is slower and more clumsy than crawling, but it's only when standing that you can hold your Teddy Bear, comforting you and creating a little golden light in the sometimes-pitch-black darkness. The limits set for you create an amazing sense of smallness: doors and drawers can be very finicky to open, climbing onto surfaces is clumsy and accompanied with frustrated baby noises, and interacting with objects changes in difficulty depending on their size. Basketballs seem like immovable boulders, hanging dresses seem like silent specters, and hallways seem endless. I found myself so drawn in to the role of a child that I felt unable to speak aloud—something I occasionally do in frightening games—and felt powerless in the face of the terrors before me.

If you're like me, you may want to know how frightening “Among the Sleep” is before you consider getting it. It's honestly not that bad. There are no bodies, no bloody scrawls on the wall, no psychologically disturbing images. The game relies on suspense and your feeling of helplessness to create its experience. The sound design is full of strange noises and creaks that will make you swear under your breath when you open a squeaky door or break a bottle. The level design is somber, dark, and creepy, and there are a number of moments to make you jump out of your seat. There are monsters that had me breathing heavily and crawling like a jitterbug for my baby life, and the sequences of being pursued are heart-pounding, but the game will not give you nightmares.

It is, in itself, a nightmare, a beautiful artistic depiction of what makes children afraid. Rooms that seemed familiar to you are transformed, a playground filled with somber-faced owl statues becomes a creaking, foggy marsh, and indistinguishable arguing adult voices float in the background, hinting at the real-life dramas that might influence this child's fears. The result is an experience that is chillingly nostalgic, recalling primal moments of childhood when the words “No, honey, not now” were the equivalent of a death knell and when the darkness seemed ready to swallow you up.

(I'm amused as I write this at how similar it is in theme to Child of Light. Why games about childhood? Partially, I suppose, to refute the idea that all games are about killing people, and even the ones which portray it are often about more than that. Partially because art about children affects me a lot.)

Why do I think you will enjoy this one? I enjoyed it because frightening first-person games are much more fun than horror movies. I can't stand horror movies, but in a game like this you have to choose to go into the dark room. No camera angle is forcing you to see the scary thing (I spent probably more than a minute and a half hiding behind a refrigerator door because something was moving on the other side aaaaagh). If you want to follow Teddy's advice and find your mother, you've gotta move your chubbiness into the dark and see what's waiting there. It's an exhilarating, chilling way of experiencing a story. The puzzles are interesting without trying to stump you, and the pace and length is very good for an introduction to the genre—about 3 and a half hours, depending.

It has a few weaknesses. Its voice acting, besides a few really shining moments, comes across as clunky and passionless. Though the sound design is fabulous, the music doesn't really shine very much and has very few memorable moments. This may be intentional to imitate a child's understanding of music, but I would have liked to have something to hold on to when I got to the end. And this third is a strange weakness, but a small prologue that was developed later (now included in the game when purchased) has been added on, and it showcases a slightly-better-designed experience that shows how the game could have been better with more time in development. But both are still the same world experience and quite enjoyable.

So give it a go. Find someone who you won't be embarrassed to get scared sitting next to, cuddle up one late evening, and walk into a nightmare together. “Among the Sleep” speaks a language that children understand—a language of toys and memories, of moments with Mom and of childhood fears, and the result is so clearly-communicated that I recommend it wholeheartedly, The story, seen through a child's eyes, is surprisingly moving for a game about finding your way through a scary dream. I want to talk to you about it when you finish.

“Among the Sleep” is available for $19.99 through a legal and safe internet client called Steam. If you're lucky, you'll find it on sale, as I think the game would be better priced at around $12.00.