Since 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).