Go to the WOODS

TST ITWSince the rights became available in the early 1990s, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods has been popular for theatres of all levels from youth to professional regional theatres. It is, on the surface, a show that is easy to do adequately allowing for singers and actors of varying levels of expertise to perform. As such, I have seen numerous productions of this title (my interest stemming partly from being a cousin of the Brothers Grimm on whose work this musical is based).

The Studio Theatre’s production of Into the Woods is a reminder why it is worthwhile to go on the journey again. Whether you have seen outstanding or dreadful productions in the past or never seen the show before, this production of Into the Woods highlights the many charms of the property.

(It also reminded me that despite some judicious trims here and there, the first act is very long. So be forewarned and visit the restroom beforehand.)

Director Rafael Castanera has assembled a strong cast and then made sure they carry out his vision. Given the physical confines of the space, he has created a world in which the stage is always bustling with activity but never seems to be crowded. This is a very wordy script, but Castanera also trusts his cast with silence. Some of the most memorable moments (touching and comic) were achieved with no words. That is the hallmark of deft directing.

The show is truly an ensemble effort with uniformly solid performances. As the Baker around whom much of the action centers, Michael Goodbar gives a nice dramatic turn. Often seen in the outrageously comic Red Octopus Theatre productions, his layered performance here is a revelation. He has great chemistry with Angela Kay Collier as the Baker’s Wife. She is an even match for him in a performance that is both strong (but not strident) and vulnerable. Erin Martinez turns in yet another memorable characterization as the Witch. Her vocal prowess is on display in numbers ranging from rap (Sondheim did it here long before Hamilton) to tender song to power ballad.

Brandon Nichols brings an animalistic swagger to his performance as the Wolf. He is predatory and sensual without being obscene, which is especially important since the object of his lupine affection is an adolescent girl. In his other role, he is a hilariously vainglorious and charming Prince. With an arched eyebrow or shift in posture, he both echoes fairy tale princes and spoofs them.   His brother in arms in the narcissism department is Ryan Heumier as his brother the other Prince. Heumier can sing to another character all the while primping in front of his ever-present handheld mirror. The fraternal duet “Agony” is a highlight of the first act (and gleefully reprised in the second).

As the object of Nichols’ princely pursuit, Rachel Caffey brings a clear voice and clear eye to the role of Cinderella. She is equally at home among the ashes as she is running through the woods in a ballgown. Grace Pitts is a delightful Red Riding Hood alternating between assertive and susceptible, innocent and knowing. Often juvenile actors can be cloying (which may be why this part is usually played by someone older). But Pitts is never mawkish in her portrayal. Even as the character comes to grip with a new reality, Pitts’ performance lets the audience know she is still a young girl with enthusiasm and vulnerability.

Evan Patterson offers a dim-witted but well-intentioned Jack (of Beanstalk fame). The part is sometimes played doltishly. But Patterson’s portrayal focuses on the humanity of the character who happens to be more absent-minded than stupid. As his mother, reliable Beth Ross tempers her exasperation at her son with her devotion to him and her desire to provide for him. David Weatherly plays the narrator who fills in for Jack’s cow Milky White at times and also appears briefly as a eponymously named “Mysterious Man.” His talents for facial expressions and cud-chewing helped bring out much of the humor in the script.

Rounding out the cast in various roles were Courtney Speyer (whose dulcet tones were on display as she sang a sort of siren’s song), Amy G. Young (having fun as a not too weak Granny), Daniel Collier (as the officious and official steward), Katie Eisenhower, Brooke Melton and Autumn Romines. The latter three were the deliciously wicked step-relatives of Cinderella.

The cast was clad in intricately detailed costumes designed by Castanera. The clothing skillfully defined the characters and added whimsically to the story. Every square inch of fabric was there for a purpose. There were many accents and accessories, so each time an actor came on stage it was possible to discover something new. But the costumes served the actors and did not distract from the performances or the story. The clothing was abetted by Robert Pickens’ exquisite wigs.

Pickens is also the set coordinator. The set is a marvel. In a relatively small space there are a variety of platforms and ramps which depict many different settings. The set mainly consists wooden planks in groupings framing the proscenium. With this wood, a few ropes and some canvas, the story unfolds before the audience’s eyes. In a subtle reminder of the storybook nature of the evening, the stage is littered with hundreds of books stacked in any possible nook and cranny. The proceedings are well-lit by Joey DiPette who manages to make sure the actors are always seen while still conveying changes in settings and shifts from day to night.

While not a through-sung musical, Into the Woods has much, much music!. Even when the actors are not singing, the music rarely stops. Musical Director Bob Bidewell has made sure that the singers maximize their musical moments in the woods. He and the orchestra never play over the singers, but definitely enhance the mood and the overall musical experience by supporting the songs and the singers.

Like revisiting stories from childhood, it was pleasant to revisit Into the Woods, especially in a strong, cohesive production currently running at the Studio Theatre. Performances continue through March 26 (7pm Thursdays through Saturdays and 2pm on Sundays).

Go INTO THE WOODS this month at the Studio Theatre

Grace Pitts as Little Red Riding Hood - Photography by Grant Dillion for The Studio Theatre

Grace Pitts as Little Red Riding Hood – Photography by Grant Dillion for The Studio Theatre

Once upon a time, Pulitzer Prize winners Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine wrote a musical based upon the folk tales of the Brothers Grimm. Into the Woods ran for over 700 performances on Broadway and won 3 Tony Awards, spawned a Tony winning revival and a movie. Now the Studio Theatre brings it back to Little Rock.

Directed by Rafael Colon Castanera (who also designed the costumes), other members of the creative team are Jennifer Caffey (assistant director), Bob Bidewell (musical director), Robert Pickens (wig designer) and Carrie Henry (stage manager).

The cast includes Rachel Caffey, Angela Kay Collier, Daniel Collier, Katie Eisenhower, Michael Goodbar, Ryan Heumier, Erin Martinez, Brooke Melton, Brandon Nichols, Ethan Patterson, Grace Pitts, Autumn Romines, Beth Ross, Courtney Speyer, David Weatherly, and Amy G. Young

The production opens tonight and runs through March 26. Performances are at 7pm Thursdays through Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm.

Lucky 13

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13 is a musical about one of the most awkward ages known to mankind in western civilization: turning thirteen. When it originally ran on Broadway five years ago, it was not a success. (More about that later.). Upon its closure, many felt that the show was through forever. But a funny thing happened over the last five years–the show has become a success in community and secondary school theatres.

The original production used tweens and early teens as actors and musicians but was lost in the scale of a huge Broadway production. It needed intimacy so that the audience and the actors can connect. This show needs actors who can seem vulnerable, naive, quixotic, and selfish without seeming polished or cartoonish. In order to achieve this, 13 needs a smaller space.

It is hard to get much smaller a space than the Weekend Theater. While sometimes that theatre is over ambitious in the scale of its production choices, 13 is the right size and type of musical for the space. Luckily, it was chosen to kickoff the 2103-14 season; it runs through Sunday, June 23.

As written by Rick Elish & Robert Horn (book), 13 is reminscent of an afterschool special or “very special episode” of a sitcom. It deals with acceptance, bullying, first love and a plethora of teen issues. In an 100 minute show, it hardly gives any topic much depth or explores too much character motivation. This facile approach, however, ensures that the actors are able to play their characters with honesty. They are not out to wow the audience with polished bravura performances that border on cute or cloying. It would not be reasonable to ask young actors to carry a show the length of Les Mis, but asking them to carry this length of show is reasonable.

What depth the musical does have comes in the form of the score by Jason Robert Brown. While Brown has written a score in a style and range that works with voices in that awkward transition on the cusp of maturity, he has also imbued it with emotional honesty. His songs capture the horrors, humor and heartbreak of being in junior high. This score is not necessarily “Broadway” but it is also not the Broadway concept of a rock score (which very rarely approaches rock). These are casual art songs, heartfelt ballads and peppy numbers reminiscent of kids TV.

The central character in 13 is Evan, played at the Weekend Theater by Will Frueauff. One cannot teach comic timing–a person has it or doesn’t. Frueauff has it. With an arched eyebrow, tilted head or slight gesture, he masterfully captured the numerous funny moments which keep this character from being pathetic. The audience feels his awkwardness but also his kindness and remorse . Through Frueauff’s performance, the audience roots for him to succeed, not out of pity but because he is a decent guy. He also displayed a nice singing voice as he handled a veritable parade of songs and emotions.

Casey Labbate and Ethan Patterson play two other outcasts–though less concerned with fitting in than Evan. These could be dour, sour, pitiful characters. Instead Labbate and Patterson flesh them out. They had a nice chemistry with each other and Frueauff. If there were a contest to see which of them has the most deadpan delivery, it would probably end up like most soccer games–a tie.

As the BMOC, Ryan Owens was goofily charming. He exhibited a nice flair for physical comedy and was able to turn on a dime from bashful to bully. Stephanie Schoonmaker displayed a pleasant singing voice as the cheerleader captain. She was honestly sweet without being syrupy. Khloe Richardson’s mean girl was a force with which to reckon. She was manipulative without being obvious. Though the closest thing to a villain in the show, Richardson still evoked sympathy or at least empathy.

Each of the other cast members had a chance to shine whether through acting, singing or dancing. Brian Earles, Diondre Wright, Autumn Romines, Madeleine Robinson, Rachel Caffey, Matthew Glover and Jeffrey Oakley ably populated this mythical world known as adolescence.

I have had the chance to see many of these performers on stage in other productions or in forensics competitions. It is always a pleasure to see them in a different arena. Rarely do tweens and teens get to play parts their own age. While obviously still playing characters, these actors seemed very comfortable in these roles. They know these people–they see them every day.

The cast was directed by Hannah M Sawyer. As a junior high speech and drama teacher, she knows something about how kids this age behave. Sawyer ensured that the performers were honest to the situation, the script and the score. A talented actor in her own right, she tapped into the actors’ talents and focused them on serving the story. In so doing, the show reminds the audience that “fitting in” does not end after one reaches the age of 13.

Watching this production caused a few flashbacks to junior high. They weren’t to bad moments or even good moments–just moments, feelings, that sense of possibility. Theatre is supposed to transport the audience–back, forward, elsewhere. I would not want to go back to junior high or high school (and this musical underscores that once is enough for adolescent angst). It is nice to be reminded of a time when getting into an R rated movie was one’s biggest concern and to reflect on the journeys made by my classmates and myself since those days.

Given the talent on the stage, it is also nice to enjoy the performances and contemplate future performances these actors may deliver.

The Weekend Theater’s production of 13 is, indeed, a lucky convergence of place, actors and director which serve the piece well.