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.

The Studio Theatre offers six musicals in 2015-2016; one show still remains in current season

studioThe Studio Theatre has announced the shows for their second season.

Up first, however, is Dogfight which will close out the first season.  Adapted from the 1991 movie of the same name, Dogfight is a story of compassion, heartbreak and redemption. 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 in downtown.

The 2015-2016 season includes six musicals.  Four of them will be making their Little Rock premieres. One of the other musicals will have its first non-touring production in Little Rock.

The new season kicks off on October 22 with a show filled with scary tales about the evils of doing bad. It is the satire Reefer Madness based on the non-satirical but unintentionally hilarious 1936 movie of the same name.

This musical, written by Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney, premiered in Los Angeles in 1998 and Off Broadway in 2001.  The Studio Theatre production will be directed by Ryan Whitfield.  The show will run from October 22 until October 31.

The Studio Theatre had a hit in 2015 with Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years.  In January 2016, they will present his first musical Songs for a New World.  This song cycle premiered Off Broadway in 1995 and has become a popular show throughout the US.  The musical style of the score varies broadly. The thing that unites the songs is the concept of making a choice or taking a stand.

The production will be directed by Monica Clark Robinson.  Songs for a New World will run January 21 to 24.

Once upon a time, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine wrote a musical based on the Grimm Brothers’ folk tales.  Into the Woods will be the third show next season.  Opening on Broadway in 1987, it may have lost the Tony for Best Musical to The Phantom of the Opera, but it has not suffered as a popular musical.

This production of Into the Woods will run from March 10 to 26.  It will be directed by Rafael Castanera, who beautifully directed Nine earlier this year.

Based on the Alice Walker novel and the Steven Spielberg movie, The Color Purple will be the fourth musical of the season.  Running from May 12 to 22, it will be directed by Crystal Mercer.

After it premiered in Atlanta in 2004, it made it to Broadway the following year.  The show has a book by Pulitzer winner Marsha Norman. The songs are by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray.  The show was nominated for 11 Tonys and won one.

The 1980s hair bands will be honored by the 5th show as Rock of Ages takes the stage. Directed by Justin A. Pike, it will run from July 14 to 24. With a book by Chris D’Arienzo, the musical features songs from Styx, Journey, Bon Jovi, Pat Benatar, Twisted Sister, Steve Perry, Poison and Europe.

Rock of Ages first played Off Broadway before transferring to Broadway.  It closed in January 2015 after playing more than 2300 performances on Broadway.

The final musical of the 2015-2016 season is James and the Giant Peach. Based on the Roald Dahl book, this musical features a score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.  The pair were nominated for a Tony for their score of the musical version of A Christmas Story.

This show will run from August 11 to 21.  It will be directed by Mark Burbank.  He is also directing Dogfight which features a score by Pasek and Paul.

(This is not connected to the production offered by the Arkansas Arts Center a few seasons back.)

Go INTO THE WOODS this weekend at UALR

UALR Opera Theater will journey Into the Woods on April 20 and 22 as it presents the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine award winning musical. (This is of special interest to the Culture Vulture who shares a common ancestor with the Brothers Grimm, on whose stories this musical is based.)

Encounter familiar characters such as Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (of the beanstalk), Cinderella and more as they strive to get their wishes. Follow the Baker and his wife as they search for magical ingredients to undo the spell the Witch has placed which prevents them from having a child. Watch as their dreams come true and reality sets it. Composer Sondheim and book writer James Lapine weave our favorite fables together in this cautionary grown-up fairy-tale about sacrifice, consequence and community.

Directed by 2009 UALR graduate Matthew K. Tatus and conducted by associate professor Bevan Keating, performances will take place at 7:30 pm on April 20 and 3pm on April 22 at the Stella Boyle Smith Concert Hall.  UALR student admission is free, children between the ages of 5-17 are $5, and general admission is $15. For tickets, call 501-569-8993 or order online at UALR Music Department Box Office.

The cast includes Christine Woods of Little Rock as Milky White/Snow White • David Lucian Angelo of Little Rock as Jack • Derrick Herman of Monticello as the baker • Ekaterina Kotcherguina of Little Rock as Cinderella • Erica Finnie of Searcy as Cinderella’s stepmother

J.J. Albrecht of Monticello as the steward • Jacqueline Forrester of Little Rock as the witch • Jessica Williams of Lantana, Texas, as Rapunzel • Katherine Ray of Jasper as Granny • Kevin Ezell of White Hall as Rapunzel’s prince • La’Leata May Westbrook of Little Rock as Lucinda.

Larry Burton of Little Rock will narrate and play the part of The Mysterious Man • LaSheena V. Gordon  of Little Rock as Florinda • Melissa Wilcox of Little Rock as Milky White’s Imposter/Sleeping Beauty • Memory Rose Apata of Little Rock as Jack’s mother • Michael Lowe of Little Rock as Cinderella’s prince • Rachel Manasco of Little Rock as Little Red Riding Hood • Regina Gallucci of Benton as Cinderella’s mother/the giant • Satia Spencer of DeWitt as the baker’s wife • Steven Armstrong of North Little Rock as Cinderella’s father