INTO THE WOODSMusic & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by James Lapine
Director - William R. Park
Musical Director - Bruce Greer
Stage Manager - Ellen Miller
Set Designer - Dave Tenney
Costume Designer - Kristin Moore
Lighting Designer - Ellen Miller
Snow White - Reanna Bell
Rapunzel - Mindy Bell
Jack - Randall Scott Carpenter
Little Red - Kegan Cole
Rapunzel's Prince - Michael DeCoursey
Lucinda - Kelsey Ervi
Cinderella - Danielle Estes
Witch - Sahara Glasener-Boles
Cinderella's Father - Francis Henry
Narrator/Mysterious Man - Doug Jackson*
Cinderella's Prince/Wolf - Brock Johnson
Jack's Mother - Delynda Johnson-Moravec
Florinda - Jenny King
Steward/Butler - Gerard Lucero
Baker's Wife - Jennifer Milner*
Cinderella's Stepmother - Francine Simpson
Sleeping Beauty - Karina Schmidt
Baker - Paul Taylor*
*Denotes Actors Equity Association Members
Reviewed Performance: 4/19/2012
Reviewed by Danny Macchietto, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
In PFamily Arts' production of Into the Woods, Paul Taylor plays the Baker, another character that requires the actor's gift of natural earnestness. The Baker finds himself at the center of endless, questionable and ethical circumstances.
When I was first exposed to Into the Woods in 1996, I related most to Jack, all na?ve wonder and unabashed enthusiasm for the next adventure in life. In the early 2000's I would relate more to the Steward, diplomatic to a fault in an attempt to protect everyone's interests, never admitting to himself that everyone else's interests should also match his own. Now 35, I relate most to the Baker.
Therein lies the beauty in the timeless appeal of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods, a rich and irreverent melding of a handful of classic Brothers Grimm fairy tales and characters, twisted, braided and frayed at the tips to reveal multiple strands of generational lessons to all ages, told in the form of a light operatic musical-comedy/drama. The show opened on Broadway in 1987 and picked up three Tony Awards for Best Original Score (Stephen Sondheim), Best Book of a Musical (James Lapine), and Best Actress (Joanna Gleeson).
This production is taken under the helm of William R. Park's assured direction and Bruce Greer's outstanding work as musical director. My repeat viewing of this classic re-telling reveals that the strengths are virtually housed in the musical numbers and the weaknesses are found inside the folds of the dialogue-driven traditional storytelling. This is mainly due to James Lapine's dialogue being very stilted when you hold it up against Sondheim's multi-layered lyricism.
The set design by Dave Tenney is ambitious but it accents the play's gimmick and not its heart and soul. The stage is outlined with four oversized Hollywood flats that represent bookshelves, two of which extend into the homes of both the Baker and Jack, the other one other that extends as Rapunzel's tower. The suggestion is simple, that the characters are meant to literally leap out of the books they come from and on to the stage. This artistic choice comes at the sacrifice of limiting the world view of the character's environment which is that of the "woods". The Woods are suggested to be a very magical place and the audience never feels the presence of these Woods, only the mere suggestion of greenery through Lighting Designer Ellen Miller's selected gobos.
Into the Woods features as strong of a cast of actors that I've witnessed in many awhile with not a weak singer in the bunch. That is no small feat when you consider that there are roughly 11 major singing roles. A cast this strong warrants more individual recognition as follows:
Mindy Bell (Rapunzel) - Mindy Bell has a polite and graceful soprano voice that is used to appropriate comedic effect as a Rapunzel who sings the same song, over and over again, all day long. That very melody is heard a lot in the three hour musical and I am thankful that Ms. Bell is so easy on the ears.
Randall Scott Carpenter (Jack) - Kudos to the make-up designer who thought to style Jack with a cartoonish Tintin hairdo. To borrow from the nursery rhyme, Mr. Carpenter's interpretation of Jack (of the Beanstalk) is quick and nimble, befitting to the character's doe-eyed bewilderment. "Giants in the Sky", a playful ballad about Jack's self discovery of his newly expanded world-view, is an Act I highpoint with Carpenter's assured tenor voice.
Kegan Cole (Little Red) - At 13 years old, Kegan Cole is certainly game for Sondheim's tricky combination of melody and lyrics; however, her interpretation of Little Red is ultimately very presentational and doesn't allow any risk taking beyond portraying a typical, little brat. Ms. Cole's character at one point is referred to as being "nice - not good-not bad-just nice". At no point does this version of Little Red ever crack a smile or even pretend to be "nice". It is clear from Ms. Cole's vocals that she is very talented, but in this case she is simply miscast.
Kelsey Ervi, Jenny King, Francine Simpson (Lucinda, Florinda, Stepmother) ? These three characters as a unit are quite exceptional in Act II. There is a unity to their struggles that is very comedic, but is not present in Act I. A special recognition is due to Costume Designer Kristin Moore for the bold choice of colorful wigs and dresses of pinks and purples.
Danielle Estes (Cinderella) - The beady-eyed Ms. Estes offers a Cinderella that is refreshingly earthy in her delivery. Ms. Estes is one of the few actors in this production that manages to perform her dialogue scenes with the same amount of thoughtfulness and precision that she gives to her musical solos. She is also quite the physical comedienne as she masters a long entrance in one, AND ONLY ONE, of the highest of heels and personifies in a single image the charm of this endearing musical. "On the Steps of the Palace" is a deceptively light and delicate melody but listen carefully to the lyrics and you'll be taken in by Ms. Estes' swift and deliberate cadences that reveal a very wistful and indecisive Cinderella.
Sahara Glasener-Boles (Witch) - Any actress cast as the Witch in Into the Woods is blessed to be trusted with the show's arguably most emotionally rich and melodically generous solos of all the musical numbers. They are big shoes to fill and Ms. Glasener Boles is more than up to the challenge. I will admit that I'm not as well-versed in musical knowledge as my Column colleagues but I would venture to say that Ms. Boles gives one of the best musical performances of the year. Just watch her lament in the ballad to her daughter, "Stay With Me", and I dare any one not to be spellbound. It is a moment that transcends the plot of the ambitious story and will speak to anyone that has had to let go of the precious child they've raised.
Doug Jackson (Narrator/Mysterious Man) - Critiquing Mr. Jackson's performance offers a bit of a paradox. On the one hand he is an excellent, unobtrusive guide through these interloping adventures as the Narrator, but on the other hand he is haunting and effective in his final scenes in Act II as the Mysterious Man. So how, you may ask, is it a paradox? The issue lies in the director and costume designer's joint decision to not mask Mr. Jackson as the Mysterious Man, allowing him to weave inadvertently between the two characters as simply the Narrator. Although this tactic is never confusing, it does prove to be quite distracting. It consistently breaks the guise of the Narrator and allows him to break the fourth wall far more than necessary and essentially lowers the stakes of the characters. Don't be afraid. The mysterious man is suddenly not so mysterious after all? why; it's only the kindly, old narrator!
Brock Johnson (The Wolf/Cinderella's Prince) - Brock Johnson as The Wolf or Cinderella's Prince is the epitome of perfect, physical casting. He certainly looks the part with his agile, trim body towering well over six feet in high-heeled cowboy boots, and sporting a wavy, black coif, eyebrows to match, and a Herculean jaw-line. His natural attributes and powerful, baritone voice should be enough to suggest the "the charming, not sincere" facade of the character but too often he underestimates his own stature by doing too much exaggerated face acting. A more straightforward and direct approach with his physical build will get the point across all the same without upstaging himself. Mr. Johnson is in his comfort zone and relaxed when belting out his operatic duet with Rapunzel's Prince, "Agony", and the jazzy number "Hello Little Girl" as the mischievous Wolf.
Michael DeCousey (Rapunzel's Prince) - DeCousy, like Brock Johnson, is also physically well-cast as that long-haired girl's prince; however, he doesn't overplay his hand and is organic and graceful in his physical movements, proving that a less is more approach will elicit laughter all the same.
Delynda Johnson Moravec (Jack's Mother/Cinderella's Mother) - I have seen directors that have treated these two roles quite thanklessly by casting performers with lesser voices. In the right hands these characters can strike a marvelously short-lived, but very vital and haunting cord. Ms. Moravec seals the deal with her perfect pitch and motherly tone.
Gerard Lucero (Steward/Butler) - Gerard Lucero is cast as the Steward and it perhaps would have been a lovely performance if it had ended at that. Unfortunately, the director has expanded that role, tasking Mr. Lucero with Butler duties as well. Mr. Lucero performs various stage errands in character: controlling Cinderella's birds, assisting with the transportation of Milky White (Jack's friend/cow), and dusting periodically for the narrator. All of this is not only distracting but completely minimizes the intention of the Steward in the first place. Without given anything away, let's just say that the Steward does things in this story that would not be considered very nice. This additional comedic service does not allow the audience to take the Steward very seriously and therefore, as with the Narrator/Mysterious Man paradox; the stakes suddenly don't seem as high for the rest of the characters.
Paul Taylor, Jennifer Milner (Baker, Baker's Wife) - Jennifer Milner is given the trickiest role of all the characters. The Baker's Wife is the most ambivalent, and ambivalence is not an easy emotion to convey, especially in musical theatre. Rest assured, Ms. Milner is not ambivalent about her commitment to her performance. Whether contemplating a new adventure in "Maybe They're Magic" or taking stock of her marriage in "Moments in the Woods", Ms. Milner shows a deft hand in maneuvering through such a complex thought process in a short time with these two story-driven songs.
She's also a formidable match to Paul Taylor's Baker as together they consistently strike the right tone for this downbeat, but humorous fairy tale send-up.
I strongly recommend Into the Woods to the uninitiated. And to all those reading that feel like they've had their fill of Sondheim recently, I urge you to seek this production out.
SPECIAL NOTE: The show runs for 3 plus hours with intermission and the wooden seats are quite uncomfortable. I suggest bringing along any sort of cushioning to spare yourself the inevitable discomfort.
4017 Preston Road #544, LakeSide Market, Plano, TX 75093
Limited run through April 28th
Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm,
Saturday matinee at 2:30 pm
Tickets are $30 for adults, $20 for students and seniors
To purchase tickets call 972-378-1234
For information go to www.pfamilyarts.org or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org