Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Into the Woods"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi


"INTO THE WOODS"

music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
book by James Lapine
directed by Rick Lombardo
choreographed by Kelli Edwards
musical direction by Todd C. Gordon

Baker’s Wife … Leigh Barrett
Witch … Nancy E. Carroll
Jack … Miguel Cervantes
Cinderella … Aimee Doherty
Jack’s Mother … Kerry A. Dowling
Steward … Timothy Espinosa
Narrator; Mysterious Man … Paul D. Farwell
Rapunzel’s Prince … Andrew Giordano
Cinderella’s Stepmother … Megan Gleeson
Cinderella’s Mother; Granny; Giant … Naomi Gurt Lind
Lucinda … Jessica Hansen
Baker … Evan Harrington
Wolf; Cinderella’s Prince … Todd Alan Johnson
Little Red Riding Hood … Veronica J. Kuehn
Cinderella’s Father … Eric Ruben
Rapunzel … Hayley Thompson-King
Florinda … Rachel Zampelli

Musicians:

Associate Music Director; Synthesizer … Steven Bergman
Trumpet … Tim Cote
French Horn … Ami Fields
Second Keyboardists … Timothy Evans; Joshua Finstein Music Director; Keyboard … Todd C. Gordon
Reed II … Heather Katz
Bass … Michael Leggio
Percussion … Scott G. Nason
Reed I … Louis Toth

As I scribbled several months ago Boston is Sondheim country, based on the man’s popularity (unabated), the quality of the productions (often excellent) and the responses I provoke whenever I criticize him (heated).
For the record, I have always been fond of COMPANY and FOLLIES from Day One and, thanks to the Lyric Stage and North Shore’s productions, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC and PACIFIC OVERTURES have joined the list though they sit somewhat off to the side. A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, an early work, has always been popular fare (the Huntington will be producing it, next season). SWEENEY TODD and ASSASSINS are cold, nasty things; SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE has a clever first act followed by a snoozy second one and I’ve yet to encounter ANYONE CAN WHISTLE, MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG and PASSION but they are just around a corner, somewhere.

Like SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, INTO THE WOODS also has two contrasting acts but is more entertaining. Mr. Sondheim and his librettist James Lapine put a spin on familiar fairy tale characters and dovetail them into their own fable about a childless Baker and his Wife who attempt to undo a witch’s curse in order to raise a family --- following the witch’s orders they go into the woods to find a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, a lock of hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold. They obtain these items, respectively, from Jack (of beanstalk fame), Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Cinderella, and Act One ends happily with everyone getting what they want. Act Two darkens, considerably, when an avenging giantess climbs down from a second beanstalk to seek out Jack who had killed her husband. She wipes out a handful of characters before she herself is felled by the survivors.

Should you choose to leave at intermission, you will have had a delightful time at INTO THE WOODS (Act One, which can stand alone, runs ninety minutes); those who stay will puzzle it out why the Messrs. Sondheim and Lapine have suddenly switched from an amusing burlesque to a somber morality play. Perhaps the fairy tale was next on the Sondheim list of topics to be analyzed and exposed (the Brothers Grimm versions, with its devourings and mutilations, are used). Perhaps the two men were reacting to the first wave of the AIDS epidemic with the giantess becoming the all-engulfing plague, itself (one of the characters dies shortly after having sex with a stranger in the woods). The problem lies not in the style but, rather, in the handling. Shakespeare’s THE WINTER’S TALE goes from starkest tragedy to healing comedy: Leontes is told he will never know peace until the baby daughter he had cast off in his madness returns to him; when the audience next views the daughter, now sixteen years old and the personification of springtime, the reunion has been instantly prepared. In the Jones-Schmidt musical THE FANTASTICKS, El Gallo sings in advance that “without a hurt, the heart is hollow”; Matt and Luisa are giddily united in the moonlight but then must suffer and grow in the harsh light of the sun --- the shift in tone is the passage from love’s youth to love’s maturity, even though the commedia style remains the same. INTO THE WOODS’ Act One is such fun that it never occurred to me that in their eagerness to have a child that the Baker or his Wife are upsetting the natural order of things leading to dire consequences --- the only bridge that Messrs. Sondheim and Lapine provide is the upstage sprouting of the second beanstalk during Act One’s finale which may go unnoticed amidst all the revelry; thus, when the fun evaporates in Act Two, leaving you in an emotional wasteland, you feel you’re being led from Grimm to Grim.

But if you keep this warning in mind --- that if you go INTO THE WOODS, you will have to find your own path out, again --- you will still have a memorable evening of theatre. Considering that the show evolved through numerous workshops, it dazzles with its near-perfect structure. Act One, for all its froth, is the more original half --- the Messrs. Sondheim and Lapine sketch in seventeen characters and deftly juggle them about so that everyone makes an impression no matter how fleeting; aside from an opening number that bombards you with three parallel narratives, the Messrs. Sondheim and Lapine’s marriage between the spoken and the sung is near-seamless, and Mr. Sondheim’s score is both mellow and sparkling and evocative of the woods, themselves; the feeling is that of a leaf on the surface of a bubbling brook, being borne along by the current, banked in temporary pools of calm, spun round and round in eddies, and, finally, coming to rest in the still, deep waters of Act Two. Act Two is less original, more familiar, with the score parting from the libretto for stretches at a time; after a first act of continuous ornamentation, the songs now are inserted, here and there. Are there tunes? Yes, there are, flickering amongst the trees, such as the catchy title song akin to the sounds of a child skipping rope, the Wolf’s down-and-dirty serenade to Red Riding Hood, and the gravely concluding “Children Will Listen”.

Two seasons ago I paid director Rick Lombardo the compliment that his New Rep production of SWEENEY TODD was so good that I would never have to see the show, again. This was my first trip INTO THE WOODS and though I would be inclined to take another trip, elsewhere, I don’t see how the current production can be surpassed as it is superbly cast from top to bottom and staged by Mr. Lombardo and choreographer Kelli Edwards at their most inspired. If you attended their THREEPENNY OPERA, last year, you’ll agree that no one can match the Lombardo-Edwards team when it comes to stylizing actors, to make them lose their fleshly qualities in order to glide or spring about with their own built-in editing so that there is never a wasted movement or any lull in the action (where does the balletic staging stop and the true dancing begin?). Another director once told me with schoolmarm severity that you must never, ever encourage an actor to think, otherwise, they will start to conceptualize rather than feel and their results will be stillborn. That may or may not be true, but Mr. Lombardo and Ms. Edwards must have tickled enough of their ensemble’s brain cells to wind up with such a dazzling, artificial whole. For all its sweep, the production’s subtle little touches are the ones that have stayed with me, such as Cinderella’s Prince posing with one booted foot ever en pointe, or the Stepsister’s variations on the theme of cattiness, or Red Riding Hood’s Granny shuffling about like a sped-up penguin in a mop cap. Mr. Lombardo bridges the two acts with his Baker and Wife: Evan Harrington’s Baker should be a confectioner, instead, as he is a big, sweet sugarplum, himself, and Leigh Barrett, warmer than she has been for some time, makes a firm but loving Wife; happily, the other characters’ transitions seem less jarring because Mr. Harrington and Ms. Barrett have already paved the way to humanness. Todd Alan Johnson, Mr. Lombardo’s Sweeney Todd and Mack the Knife, plays the Wolf with such devilish, smarmy glee that he reinforces my hunch that here could be a definitive Dr. Frank N. Furter to make you shiver in antici….pation, and Nancy E. Carroll, his unforgettable Mrs. Lovett and Mrs. Peachum, is in fine voice as the Witch; she also gets a rare chance to doll up and displays a figure trim enough to make an Auntie Mame declare where has she been hiding it all these years. Among the others --- and I continue to marvel over this ensemble’s riches --- Veronica J. Kuehn endeared herself as Red Riding Hood, ever jigging about, Kerry A. Dowling brings her familiar maternal warmth to Jack’s mother as she has brought to many a SpeakEasy role (has she ever played a villainess?) and the unseen Giant is chillingly suggested by Naomi Gurt Lind’s voice being run through a synthesizer and accompanied by Mr. Lombardo’s own sound design which reverberates through your very ribcage.

Thus, New Repertory ends its twentieth season in triumph; it will also be closing its Newton Highland doors en route to its new state-of-the-art home in Watertown, beginning next season. Goodbye, then, to the ‘little church around the corner’ with its black curtains taped in its windows to block out the sunlight and its bells which chime on the hour regardless of whatever passions are playing out onstage. Goodbye to the little thrust stage that has held so many fine performances, and goodbye to one of the most tortuous seating plans ever devised by Man. With the loss of Boston’s legendary Gaiety Theatre still haunting me, I cannot help feeling that New Repertory’s departure is another turning page of local theatre history but how comforting to know that the company is not gone but merely gone, somewhere else. Break a leg, New Repertory, and we’ll see you in the fall.

"Into the Woods" (29 April - 5 June)
NEW REPERTORY THEATRE
54 Lincoln Street, NEWTON HIGHLANDS, MA
1 (617) 332-1646

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide

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