Posts Tagged: Review

Review: “Into the Woods”


Since people are already asking me what I thought, here you go:


  • Meryl Streep was lackluster.  Her opening rap lacked the big theatricality that number demands (much like the energy-sapped Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett.)  “Stay With Me” was better, and “Last Midnight” was actually pretty good.  Who could have done better?  My top choice would be Joanna Gleason, but Donna Murphy would do in a pinch.
  • Anna Kendrick was OK, but a few too many contemporary/AI-style scoops, and not enough real understanding of the lyrics and characterization in her songs.
  • James Corden was very good as the Baker as was Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife.  It’s a shame that Rob Marshall staged “It Takes Two” in such a goofy way.
  • The Princes were good!  “Agony” was funny, but could have been SO much funner with better direction.
  • Little Red Riding Hood was OK, but just over the line of being too Aspbergersy.
  • The role of the Wolf was completely wasted on Johnny Depp.  If they really needed him to get the film made, I suppose this how he could do the least harm, but hasn’t he destroyed Sondheim’s music enough?  “Hello Little Girl” is such a Ravelian blues masterpiece, and was a big missed opportunity.  Plus, his costume should have been wolfier.  He basically came off as a child molester, which I know is the point, isn’t art about disguising such things?
  • I’m not going to complain about Christine Baranski being in anything, but I would have preferred a Brit in her role (paging Joanna Lumley!) and in most of the others as well.
  • I could have sworn the giant was Matthew Crawley’s mother from Downton, but it turns out it was that woman from The History Boys.
  • Jack was good.  I thought it was really cute how he couldn’t say his ‘R’s.  Tracey Ullmann was a surprisingly good choice for Jacks’ mother.


  • Everyone said that this is really a movie, but I’m not sure that I agree.  I thought the staging of the musical numbers was very theatery and generally weak, with a few exceptions, notably the duet of “No One is Alone” which I found very effective (and filmic).
  • There were way too many tight shots, especially at beginning, and many scenes were blocked in such a way that I couldn’t tell what was going on.
  • I did NOT like the ending, which was rendered too maudlin without the return of the bubbly score.  Yes, I know that it was in the credits, but sorry, that doesn’t count, and it sucked.  And I hated Cinderella’s final “I wish”.


  • The score itself is, of course, a miracle and one of the great artistic masterpieces of all time.  Sondheim is like Beethoven for me, in that the most satisfying way to engage with his music is to read the score; no staging/filming/presentation could ever come close to the genius he put on the page.
  • I had no problem with the lack of the narrator and “No More”.  It’s a great song, but I’m willing to sacrifice it for the movie.
  • The key changes bothered me, especially when they occurred mid-song.
  • The additional music score added for the movie was pretty weak, certainly when compared to the Glory of Sondheim.
  • Did everyone catch that Easter Egg of “The Night Waltzes” from A Little Night Music being played at the ball?
  • Some tempi (especially the Witch’s numbers and “Your Fault”) were too slow.  I think they could have been just a notch faster and we still would have understood the words.
  • The orchestrations sounded true to the original overall, and of course Jonathan Tunick always fits Sondheim like a glove.  But I wonder what his name in the credits really means.  Did he actually do anything for the movie, or did he just hand over his original score sheets and let these people do their stuff?
Screen Shot 2014-12-25 at 4.11.47 PM

At the very least, I think we can be safe in our knowledge of what Daniel Bhattacharya’s contribution amounted to amounted to.

Overall, it was good, but not great, and certainly the best of the Sondheim film adaptations.  There were so many missed opportunities, and plenty of ways that they could have presented the music and lyrics in a way that would have elicited their inherent humor, charm and poignancy to greater effect.  I’d give it a solid B – definitely worth seeing, but do yourself a favor and listen to the Original London Cast recording.

Oh, and p.s. I was crying from start to finish just thinking about how tight the motivic construction of the score is.

‘Hercules’ at the Chicago Lyric

I don’t want to be a professional critic.  I don’t enjoy pointing out the many flaws in a bad performance or work of art.  I do enjoy promoting the works that I like, but only the luckiest professional critics can indulge in this activity on a regular basis.  Or the least honest ones.

I frequently turn to these critics for their opinions, though.  Especially after films and operas, rarely after concerts.  I almost never consult their opinions before I see or hear a work.  Usually I want to see if they agreed with me.  Sometimes I’m left with an impression of a piece, but I’m at a loss to describe why I feel a certain way, so I turn to a good writer to help me analyze my own opinions.

When time and resources allow, I try to get a representative sampling of critical opinions.  Rotten Tomatoes is great for this – whether or not I liked a movie, I always read at least one review from the opposite side of the aisle.

I’m compelled to write criticism of the Lyric Opera’s new production of Handel’s “Hercules” because I don’t see my opinion expressed in any of the major media outlets, namely the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times.  In fact, it’s not even in any of the bitchy Chicago theater blogs.  So this post is for anyone who saw “Hercules” and wasn’t convinced by the von Rheins and Patners of the world.  An opposing voice to at least create a discussion.

Peter Sellars’ production was a total misfire.  Not even a misfire – a malfunction.  No, not even a malfunction.  This was like a wiry little kid armed with a beat-up, seventy-year-old machine gun lazily spraying it all over the stage.

Mr. Sellars had a concept.  It had something to do with post-traumatic stress disorder and America’s role in the Middle East.  I’m guessing he thinks both are bad.  His concept was less directed than costumed.  Cast members wearing contemporary American Army uniforms were juxtaposed with others wearing… something else.  I’m not sure what it was.  The gowns looked like they were recycled from a 1965 production of Cendrillon. Or from this.

Other than that, I’m not sure where the concept was enacted.  I doubt Mr. Sellars gave the matter any further thought.  What I saw on stage was a collection of half-formed, ill-conceived ideas.  Why was the Lyric Chorus performing a Differently Abled-appropriate rendition of the Macarena to this chorus?  We may never know.

Musically, this was an excellent effort.  Harry Bicket‘s conducting was inspired, and the orchestra sounded wonderful.  Lucy Crowe was exquisite beyond words.  The only weak link was Eric Owens as the title character.  I have no idea what he was doing on the stage.  His voice did not in any way suit the material or match the style of the other singers in the cast.  Not to mention, if I were going to play the role of Hercules, I might stop by the gym a couple times before opening night.

But of course, this is Opera.

Portrait of a starving artist

The music is gorgeous, but the score needs cutting.  I know we’re all supposed to be living in some new era of refinement and intelligence, and we’re supposed to love us some 2 hour acts of da capo arias.  But Baroque Opera is a tricky thing in that it existed before the invention of “plot”.  A good, creative director can go a long way to helping us love the music for what it is.

It’s nice that Peter Sellars arranged for meetings with Iraq War Veterans and involved other community organizations.  Perhaps the Lyric Opera should consider hiring him for their Outreach Department.  Nobody should consider hiring him to direct any more operas.  This was a truly bad production.

The Big Picture lesson here is one about projects and art and suitability.  There are certain subjects out there.  There are certain media as well.  If you’re an artist, there are two ways to go about matching them: you can either say to yourself, “There’s a topic that I really care about.  What is the best form for me to communicate and express it?” OR, “I’m involved in x project/medium, which is defined by certain tools at my disposal.  What would be good topic to explore given inherent virtues and limitations of these tools?”

What you don’t want to do is say, “I really like this subject.  I’m doing this kind of project.  Why don’t I smash them together and see what comes out?”

Which brings me to my next case:

Some things you just know are going to suck before you hear the first note.  This is one of them.  I see what’s temptingly operatic about the story of Anna Nicole Smith.  Celebrity, money, family, death, tragedy.  Killer material.

The problem is that her story is a very contemporary one – she was a Pop culture icon.  So how do we deal with this?  Well, the first option would be to re-set her tale to a period that would be more commonly associated with opera.  That could even be really interesting.  Unfortunately, you would be breaking a cardinal sin of the opera world  – operas can only be staged later than their intended period.

So let’s say you’re the Royal Opera House and you’ve got your heart set on doing this Anna Nicole thing as an opera.  Your next step would be to find the artists to make it work.

And here’s the real snag.  Anna Nicole’s story is a tragedy, but it’s a tragedy that played itself out in Pop Media.  She inhabited the world of MTV, Courtroom TV, and the internet.  So if you confine yourself to someone who is part of the official world of New Music, you’re going to end up with the above.

For all his Puma footwear, Diesel jeans, and Versace glasses, the poppiest musical idiom he could muster for this show was a light swing.  This bit of advertising is VERY revealing:

Notice that you don’t hear Mark Anthony Turnage’s score.  You hear some song by this band called Age of Consent, which actually is pretty decent.  I’d say they would have been a much better choice for Composer on this project.