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Friday, March 16, 2012

Anything Can Happen in the Woods

As kids we all remember those fairy tales where the characters lived happily ever after. With CENTERSTAGE’s production of Into the Woods, we get to enjoy four such fairy tales—“Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Rapunzel.” Their plots are interwoven and linked with the original story of the Baker and his Wife in this magical, entertaining, and sometimes dark musical that confronts real issues found in adulthood, not necessarily childhood.

Into the Woods, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, is a multiple Tony Award winner. The show opened on Broadway in 1987 and ran for 765 performances. A bunch of revivals and national tours were spawned. Sondheim, now 82, had won 8 Tony awards in his prolific career–more than any other composer.

As Act One unfolds at CENTERSTAGE’s Pearlstone Theater, the Narrator introduces the characters. The Baker and his Wife are having a tough time producing a child and join in the stories of the other fairy tale characters as the couple pursues their quest for a child. Cinderella, Jack, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel also had wishes as they meander through the woods in search of those dreams.

The neighboring Witch had put a spell of infertility on the Baker and Wife after catching the Baker’s father in her garden stealing "magic" beans. But the Witch’s mother also cast a spell—on her—that made her old and ugly. To reverse it she would need ingredients for a special potion, and if the Baker and Wife could provide by three midnights hence, that curse—their inability to conceive a child—would be removed.

Those ingredients are: A Slipper As Pure As Gold (obtained from Cinderella), A Cow As White As Milk (from Jack), A Cape As Red As Blood (from Little Red Riding Hood), and Hair As Yellow As Corn (from Rapunzel). Following the harrowing adventures in the woods to gather these ingredients, the potion is created and it works, stripping the Witch of her power, but also restoring her beauty.

Act One conforms to what we expect from the Brothers Grimm who authored these four tales: 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 surviving characters discover they can find strength in their interdependence with one another.

Mark Lemos (A Little Night Music at CENERSTAGE in 2008) ably directed this production, which is co-produced with the Westport (CT) Country Playhouse. “Into the Woods is a musical unlike any other,” he says. “With a book by James Lapine that veers cunningly between tragedy and comedy, and one of Stephen Sondheim's most sophisticated and playful scores, it re-imagines well-known fairy tales and imbues them with new possibilities. It's a challenging show—Sondheim's lyrics alone are dazzling in their own right—and one that really excites me to be directing, especially with this amazing cast of artists.”

Although most of the melodies in my opinion are not particularly memorable other than the title song, which is performed several times with variations, Sondheim’s lyrics are superb. Each number cleverly and at times comically augments the dialogue and adds a significant dimension to the plot. These lyrics and the songs’ performances by the cast are the show’s strengths.

“Hello, Little Girl” performed by Nik Walker as the Wolf and Dana Steingold as Little Red was a delight. “Agony,” a duet by Cinderella’s Prince and Rapunzel’s Prince (again Nik Walker and Robert Lenzi, respectively) also scored high marks. “Stay With Me” performed by Britney Coleman (Rapunzel) and Lauren Kennedy (Witch) was sensitive and touching. “Your Fault,” a favorite song of mine, was skillfully performed by Justin Scott Brown (Jack), Erik Liberman (the Baker), Jenny Latimer (Cinderella), Dana Steingold and Lauren Kennedy.

Wayne Barker and his seven-piece orchestra seamlessly backed up the skilled vocalists.

Danielle Ferland as the Baker’s Wife, Cheryl Stern as Jack’s Mother, and Dana Steingold as Little Red were standout performers. Their voices were powerful and their acting enhanced by expressive body language was flawless. But the other cast members also made significant contributions to this finely tuned production under Lamos’ guiding hand.

Allen Moyer’s scenery, which, for the most part, consisted of various woods locales, had the right look of a fairy tale brought to the stage. Candice Donnelly’s costume design was excellent for all the characters, depicting the Grimm brothers’ era of two centuries ago.

And while the volume was more than adequate under the guidance of Zachary Williamson’s sound design, the words from the booming off-stage voice of the Giantess came across garbled.

That may have been the only blemish, and a minor one at that, in this thoroughly enjoyable, wonderfully written, scored and performed muscical.

Into the Woods runs through April 15. Tickets are $10-$60, and can be ordered online at www.centerstage.org/woods, or by calling 410-332-0033.

Photo © Richard Anderson

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