Monday, July 27, 2015

Into the Woods at Toby's is a Good Choice


If there’s one thing you can say about Into The Woods, the Tony Award winning musical whose score and lyrics were brought into the world by the genius of Stephen Sondheim and the book by James Lapine, is that the production playing at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia was perfectly cast.  With every one of the show’s 22 characters popping up at a frenetic pace throughout the musical donned in dazzling old-time costumes by Eleanor Dicks, it is clear that there is no one better who could have performed each of the roles.   #hocoarts
Photo by Jeri Tidwell
Co-directors Toby Orenstein and Mark Minnick ably took advantage of this abundance of talent and helmed an entertaining, message-laden, family-friendly spectacle.  The technical crew is also commendable particularly Lynn Joslin’s Light Design, which is effectively used to illuminate the characters that appear at different locations in the in-the-round stage while blacking out parts of the stage so that others seamlessly exit.

When we were kids we remember that the characters in fairy tales “lived happily ever after.”  That’s not necessarily the case in Into The Woods.  In this magical and sometimes dark musical, real choices found in adulthood—not necessarily childhood—and the consequences of these choices are brought to the fore.
Into The Woods is not just one fairy tale; we get to enjoy four from the Brothers Grimm—“Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Rapunzel”—whose plots are interwoven and linked with the original story of the Baker and his Wife played superbly by Jeffrey Shankle and Priscilla Cuellar, respectively.  Russell Sunday with his deep resonant voice is the Narrator who ties everything together, and there’s a lot to tie.  He also performs admirably as the Mysterious Man.

In order to break a spell from an ugly Witch (played zestfully by Janine Sunday) that had prevented the couple from bearing children, The Baker and his Wife needed to venture into the woods to find four items the Witch demanded: a slipper as pure as gold, a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, and hair as yellow as corn.  
"perfectly cast"

During their arduous journey, they encounter Cinderella (Julia Lancione) for the slipper, Jack (Jimmy Mavrikes) for the cow (Alex Beveridge), Little Red Riding Hood (Sophie Schulman) for the red cape and Rapunzel (Katherine Riddle) for the hair.  They, too, had wishes of their own as they meandered through the woods in search of those dreams.

Act One conforms to what we expect: all the characters had their wishes fulfilled and “lived happily ever after”—or did they?  In Act Two we get a glimpse of what can transpire beyond “happily ever after” endings and the consequences of the characters’ wishes. Without revealing the storyline, this act is darker than the first with its murders, terror, lies, adultery, betrayals, accusations and revenge.
Serious problems must be addressed, such as dealing with the angry vengeful widow of the Giant. In tackling this and other challenges, the four surviving characters discover they can find strength in their interdependence with one another.

As mentioned earlier, all members of the company were suitably cast as if the roles were written specifically for each.  Their vocals excel during Sondheim’s lyrically solid numbers and backed ably by the robust sounds of Ross Scott Rawlings’ six-piece orchestra.
As the determined Baker, Jeffrey Shankle mixed his acting and singing ingredients to form a delicacy of a performance.  Working with Priscilla Cuellar as the Baker’s Wife, the duo exhibits excellent onstage chemistry and performs well in “It Takes Two.”  Mr. Shankle also does very well in the group number “No One is Alone.”

Ms. Cuellar with her lovely voice in top form sings beautifully in her solo “Moments in the Woods” among others.
Another stellar combo are Jimmy Mavrikes as the simple boy Jack whose friend was his cow Milky White and veteran actress Jane C. Boyle as his struggling mother. Nimble and energetic, Mr. Mavrikes is in constant motion playing the youthful and rather dim-witted Jack.  His solo “Giants in the Sky” soars.  Ms. Boyle performs at a high level in her attempts at parenting.

As Cinderella, Julia Lancione demonstrates her superb vocal skills in a duet with Ms. Cuellar in “A Very Nice Prince” and her solo “On the Steps of the Palace.”
If you have a Grimm fairy tale then you need a handsome Prince Charming, and Jonathan Helwig as Cinderella’s Prince checks that box.  He and his brother, Rapunzel’s Prince, played by Justin Calhoun, provide much of the campiness in the show.  Their comical duet “Agony” whereby the two muse about the women in their lives hits the mark.

Ms. Sunday as the Witch sparkles in the ballad “Stay With Me” and later after her youth and beauty were restored but her powers were stripped by the potion comprised by the sought after ingredients in “Last Midnight.”
Other favorites performed by the company include the title song as the prologue and “Your Fault.”

The remainder of the cast also turns in stirring performances, notably Heather Marie Beck as Cinderella’s Stepmother, Lawrence B. Munsey as Cinderella’s Father and the hungry Wolf, Sophie Schulman as Little Red Ridinghood, Katherine Riddle as Rapunzel, Scott Harrison as Steward, and Katie Keyser and MaryKate Broulliet as Cinderella’s stepsisters Florinda and Lucinda.  And last but not least, a pat on the rump is in order for Alex Beverage’s strenuous work as Milky White.
The show takes on serious and complex subjects in a creative and artful way.  Sondheim’s music and the cast’s sterling performances make the trek Into The Woods worthwhile.

Running time: Approximately two hours and 50 minutes with an intermission.
Into The Woods plays through September 6 at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets may be purchased by calling 410-730-8311or visiting online.

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