7/11/2021     INTO THE WOODS                                   City Springs Theatre Co

 

INTO THE WORDS AND INTO THE STORY

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I have seen well over a dozen productions of Lapine and Sondheim's Into the Woods and can pretty much recite it by heart.  When you add in multiple viewings of the several productions I was a part of, it would be safe to say I’ve seen well over thirty performances of this show.  And yet, I look forward to any new production with an anticipation that is probably certifiable. 

 

Some shows just don’t get stale for me, and this one is at the top of the list.

 

Fortunately, the City Springs Production ranks as one of the best, despite yesterday’s matinee suffering a storm-induced blackout (*) and a few other technical glitches.  This production hails back to the original Broadway production, dropping the 2nd wolf added for the 2002 Broadway revival as well as the beautiful (but pace slowing) “Our Little World” Rapunzel/Witch duet.  It also does not indulge in the sort of conceptual creative flourish that was so successful in the Aurora’s 2016 production (and so unsuccessful in the Alliance’s 2011 effort).

 

What this production has is a wealth of talent, a wealth of energy, and a wealth of commitment to the stories, to the music, to the characters, and, especially, to the words.

 

Let me begin with my usual cut-and-paste job from some of my (many) earlier reviews.

 

It’s all about the stories.  And the words.  And the music.  Yes, you can concoct scholarly theses centered on the influences of Bettelheim, on the threads of Campbell’s archetypes, on the historical synchronicities and similarities across various cultures, on the seemingly conflicting themes of maturity, wish-fulfillment, responsibility, and “children-as-witness.”  All of these (and more)

scholarly analyses have come out of the forests of academia.  But, in the final analysis, any production of Into the Woods is all about the stories.  And the words.  And the music.


First produced in 1986, Into the Woods combines several popular fairy tales with a new unifying story, sending its cast off on a classic quest and letting their fondest dreams come true.  In the second act, they reap the dire consequences for the choices and compromises they made to win their “I wish” journeys.  In other words, Act One is a happy excursion into childhood, the stories we always remember, the “happily ever afters” we always dream.  Act Two is the darker journey of adulthood, the taking of responsibility, the bonding together to achieve a goal, the moments of loss and despair.  I have friends who insist that Act Two ruined the play for them, that they preferred the happy endings alone.  I think Act Two is really what the play is about.  Act One makes Into the Woods a good and fun-filled musical.  Act Two makes it a GREAT musical.

 

So, what makes this outing so memorable? 

 

Let’s start with the cast. Jeff McKerley brings to the Narrator his usual energy and panache, but he goes one step further, imbuing him with a love of story-telling, keeping his face a-glow, chomping at the bit to let us know “what happens next.”  Throughout the pandemic, Mr. McKerley has been a reader for an evening story time series, and he brings all that same energy to this performance pulling us into the stories and making us (well, at least me) forget we’ve seen this show so many times before.

 

As the Witch, the exquisite Terry Burrell pulls out the stops, taking such joy in being vicious, in being bad, in being “right,” yet still breaking our hearts with her losses and burdens.  As our “heroes,” Billy Tighe and Felicia Boswell (The Baker and his Wife) bicker and bond like any couple of many years should.  We WANT to take this journey with them.   Leigh Ellen Jones is an athletically winsome Cinderella, stumbling and tumbling like an acrobat, but keeping sincere and focused.

 

As the youngsters, Haden Rider as Jack and Jalise Wilson as Red Riding Hood quickly make us forget they’re far too old for their characters, and come across like kids, not like adults pretending to be kids.   And the remarkable Ingrid Cole brings to Jack’s Mother more than a few surprises and moments-to-remember.  

 

Individually, Colt Prattes (Cinderella’s Prince) and Benjamin H. Moore (Rapunzel’s Prince) are perfectly fine, leaping rather than walking, preening rather than prince-ing, giving vent to their appetites, like the wolves they are (and, for the record, Mr. Prattes is one of the most lithe, limber and oozing wolves it has been my pleasure to see).  However, when they are on stage together, they just seem... well, wrong.  Mr. Moore seems so much older (and larger) than Mr. Prattes, it’s (sometimes) an effort to accept him as the younger, “lesser” Prince.  But that quibble disappears as soon as they break into “Agony,” probably the comic highlight of the show.

 

Which brings me to the music.  This is one of Stephen Sondheim’s most accessible scores, and it is filled with musical moments of greatness.  “No More,” my favorite, reduced me to tears (as usual), and, if it’s not overstating, this was the best of the thirty or more performances I’ve seen of this number.  Ms. Burrell totally “owns” “Stay with Me” and “Last Midnight.”  Other outstanding moments this time include Ms. Wilson’s “I Know Things Now,” Mr. Rider’s “Giants in the Sky,” Ms. Jones’ “On the Steps of the Palace,” Ms. Boswell’s “Moments in the Woods,”  and the aforementioned “Agony” (and its reprise).  I truly love this score, and this production displays  it extraordinarily well.  So, kudos to Music Director S. Renee Clark and Musical Supervisor Chris Brent Davis.

 

I was mostly impressed with the set by Paul Wonsek – these woods are indeed lovely dark and deep – but having the three houses on a drop cloth makes the Giant’s rampage at the top of Act II a bit “less than” I would have liked – it’s always more effective to see shelves fall and dishes break.  Still, it did make for an exceptionally smooth segue from village to forest.  And it was all beautifully lit by Mike Wood (missed cues notwithstanding).

 

To be honest, I didn’t like the long pause for the witch’s Act I transformation, and there were some (very) occasional sight-line issues (why wasn’t the Witch on the highest platform for that final number?).  But again, these are quibbles that would only be noticed by someone who has seen more productions of the show than is psychologically sound.  Ands even I chose to overlook them as I wallowed in the rapturous pleasure of the production as a whole.  So, kudos to first-time director Kayce Grogan-Wallace.

 

So, how far would you go to realize your most fervent “I wish?” How much of a “mess” will your wish leave for someone else?  How many of your arguments will your children hear and forever remember?  What do you want to leave behind?

 

More than a collection of children’s stories, Into the Woods is a journey into the heart of adulthood, into what we bring from our childhood, about what we save for those we leave behind.  It’s a musically rich, profoundly moving dream of a show, imaginatively staged, lyrically complex and emotionally involving.  It’s Sondheim at his peak, and I anticipate every new production with a sense of excitement like that of the start of a new forest journey.

 

Here the focus is on story, on words that frame our experience, on characters that give our hearts wings, on music that gives our spirit sustenance.  And, indeed, City Springs’  Into The Woods made my spirit truly soar! 

 

     -- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com    @bk_rudy    #IntoTheWoods   #CitySpringsTheatre)

 

(*) Kudos to the “It’s an Eclipse” ad lib when the lights went out!