The Hypocrites at the Mercury Theater. Book by James Lapine. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Geoff Button. With ensemble cast. 2hrs 55mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
“Careful the things you say,” advises Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1987 fairy tale for adults. “Children will listen.” And there’s much in the material—which puts Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack of beanstalk fame and Little Red Riding Hood in the same enchanted forest as a newly invented baker and his wife—that’s meant to tap into modern mores and anxieties about parent-child relationships and stories with grayscale morals.
A recent staging at New York’s Public Theater, inspired by a 2010 London production, toyed with the kid-lit implications by making the play’s Narrator a child actor. Director Geoff Button’s new Hypocrites production plays the kid card in a different way. The Mercury Theater’s stage is decked out like Romper Room as we enter the theater, William Boles’s set covered in childlike chalk drawings of happy houses and smiley-faced suns.
The cast of just ten adult actors—as in many Hypocrites productions, the doubling, tripling and quadrupling of roles are key to the concept—roams the stage faux-casually during the preshow, eying the dress-up trunks full of costume pieces they’ll don to become their characters or squatting on the kindergarten-scaled, primary-color chairs at the edges of the proscenium where they’ll hang out when “offstage,” quaffing from sippy cups.
So the vibe is established as part Godspell, part You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, with a dash of Pippin—Blake Montgomery’s be-cardiganed Narrator as both Leading Player and Mister Rogers. (The Godspell connection is writ large early on with the reveal of Little Red and her particular choice of cape.)
The conceit of kids playing guided dress-up works quite well through the musical’s first act, which culminates in the traditional happy ending. It holds up for most of Act II, which gets into the messier morality of what happens after ever after; the storybook characters’ dismissal of their teller even acquires some added poignancy.
Yet the concept doesn’t quite find a satisfying payoff. By adding such a prominent layer of Brechtian playfulness (if that can be a thing), Button seems to promise a reckoning that will complete the circle, for which we’re left hanging. Where the Hypocrites’ first act is sharp if occasionally too downtempo, the second can feel a bit diffuse.
Still, unlike some productions I’ve seen of Into the Woods—a show that largely formed the crux of my musical theater education—you can’t accuse the Hypocrites’ of being by-the-book. Button’s staging is popping with ideas (sometimes literally, as Boles’s fanciful balloon-tree forest occasionally gets pricked).
And the cast is largely winning: Joel Ewing is a strong, somewhat smartass Baker who’s interestingly matched in goofiness by Allison Hendrix as the Baker’s Wife, while Sarah Bockel finds appealing notes doubling as Cinderella and Rapunzel. Will Skrip and Michael Brown mine competitive princes for solid laughs, and Hannah Dawe charmingly positions the matter-of-fact Little Red as a cousin of Zosia Mamet’s Shoshana from Girls.
For all the new angles Button’s staging finds, there’s one borrowed bit that irks: As the Witch, Hillary Marren seems, consciously or not, to be aping the very particular vocal tics of original star Bernadette Peters. It’s not a bad impersonation, actually, and with more roles on her plate than anyone else (she also portrays Red’s Granny, Cinderella’s late mom and evil stepsister Lucinda) it’s possible she’s leaning too hard on the sound familiar to those of us who listened as children. But it’d be nice to hear her grow into her own characterization.
But then there are places where the unimaginable Sudoku of Button’s cast reduction pays off in spades. The frantic costume changes make for great joke fodder through much of the show, but watch for Northwestern undergrad Aubrey McGrath, who makes a terrific young Jack while doubling as another, minor character; the casting comes with a particular resonance that could gut-punch even those who know Into the Woods well. It’s an imperfect forest, but it’s filled with unexpectedly arresting trees.