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.

Musical DOGFIGHT up next at The Studio Theatre – this weekend only

(LtoR) Koty Mansfield, Payton Justice, Ethan Patterson, Xavier Jones, Ben Mills, Chase Cundall

(LtoR) Koty Mansfield, Payton Justice, Ethan Patterson, Xavier Jones, Ben Mills, Chase Cundall

The Studio Theatre presents the regional premiere of Dogfight, a story of compassion, heartbreak and redemption adapted from the 1991 movie. With music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (James and The Giant Peach, A Christmas Story) and book by Peter Duchan, Dogfight offers audiences the winning combination of a great musical score, an unexpected love affair and a genuine soul.

It’s November 21, 1963. On the eve of their deployment to the small but growing ‘little conflict’ in Southeast Asia (and unbeknownst to them, also the eve of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination), three young, fresh and cocky Marines are looking forward to one final night of partying. They set out to find the ugliest girl to bring to the “dogfight”, a cruel game where the men put up money for a party and a cash prize for whoever brings the ugliest girl. But when Corporal Eddie Birdlace meets Rose, an awkward and idealistic waitress he enlists to win the cruel bet with his fellow recruits, she rewrites the rules of the game and teaches him the power of love and compassion. Dogfight is a powerful and haunting musical about the end of the age of innocence in the 60’s.

Winner of the Lucille Lortel Award for Best Musical in 2013, Dogfight runs August 20- August 23 at The Studio Theatre located at 320 West 7th Street. Performances are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, August 20, 21 and 22, 2015 at 7 PM and Sunday August 23, 2015 at 2 PM. Ticket price is $20 for Adults and $15 for Students, Senior Citizens and military (with valid id). Seating is general admission. Tickets can be purchased at www.eventbrite.com.

Due to mature themes, adult content and strong language, this production is not recommended for young children.

The cast is led by Ben Mills and Kayla Walker. Others in the cast include Payton Justice, Koty Mansfield, Bridget Davis, Ethan Patterson, Xavier Jones, Chase Cundall, James Norris, Georgeann Burbank and Jennifer Restum.  Rounding out the cast are Rachel Caffey, Brooke Melton and Hayley Coughlin.

The production is directed by Mark A. Burbank.  Bob Bidewell is the music director.  Others on the crative team include Hannah M. Sawyer, Anthony McBride, Stacey Johnson, Sarah Scott Blakey and Tye Davis.  Justin A. Pike is the Artistic Director of The Studio Theatre.

 

SORCERER’S APPRENTICE at Children’s Theater

As the state’s premiere center for visual and performing arts with a renowned collection of international art, the Arkansas Arts Center Children’s Theatre will present The Sorcerer’s Apprentice October 25 – November 10.

The audience will love this fun-filled, popular rendition of a thoroughly modern young girl on a magical journey when she meets a mysterious medieval sorcerer’s apprentice. The production is written by Alan Keith Smith and is based on a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

“This Children’s Theatre production brings to life an exciting magical world while reminding us that our actions have consequences,” said Arkansas Arts Center executive director Todd Herman. “This tale of morality is a wonderful experience for the whole family to share and the relatable characters give the story an entirely new dimension on stage.”

The cast for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice includes: John Isner, Tanner Barry, Mark Hansen, Jeremy Matthey, Moriah Patterson, Veronica Lowry, Sissy Quaranta, Sarah Nicholson, Huner Wood, Sophie Wacaster, Margaret Lowry, Brooke Melton, Mattingly Bartole, Savanna Fischer, Erin Fowler, Ben Fish, Montana Bartole and Kate Kelly.

Keith Smith is the director, playwright and scene designer for the production. Artistic direction by Bradley Anderson, choreography by Moriah Patterson, costumes are designed by Nikki Webster, technical direction by Drew Posey, lighting design by Penelope Poppers, musical direction by Lori Isner, properties by Miranda Young, children’s acting coach is Aleigha Morton and Sarah Gasser is the stage manager.

Presenting sponsors for the event are Landers Fiat and Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield. The production is also sponsored by Centennial Bank, JPMS Cox, PLLC with in-kind support provided by Boulevard Bread Company.

Recognized by The Drama League as one of the best regional theatre companies in America, the Arkansas Arts Center Children’s Theatre is the only professional company in Arkansas that produces children’s literary works for the stage. Since 1979, Children’s Theatre has been creating unique experiences for family audiences. During the 2012-13 season, nearly 43,000 children and families enjoyed Arkansas Arts Center Children’s Theatre productions which included more than 200 schools across Arkansas.