INTO THE WOODSNational Tour
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Lapine
The Fiasco Theater Production
AT&T Performing Arts Center
Directors: Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld
Music Director: Evan Rees
Stage Manager: Brian J. L’Ecuyer
Scenic Designer: Derek McLane
Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind
Sound Design: Darron L. West and Charles Coes
Costume Design: Whitney Locher
Choreographer: Lisa Shriver
Baker’s Wife: Eleasha Gamble
Lucinda/Wolf/Cinderella’s Prince: Anthony Chatmon II
Mysterious Man: Fred Rose
Milky White/Florinda/Rapunzel’s Prince: Darick Pead
Cinderella’s Stepmother/Jack’s Mother: Bonne Kramer
Cinderella/Granny: Laurie Veldheer
Witch: Vanessa Reseland
Jack/Steward: Patrick Mulryan
Baker: Evan Harrington
Little Red Riding Hood/Rapunzel: Lisa Helmi Johanson
Pianist: Evan Rees
Reviewed Performance: 5/16/2017
Reviewed by Holly Reed, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Co-directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld brilliantly peeled back the glossy layers of multi-million dollar musical productions and revealed the prized jewels at the center: story and craft. As the opening scene unfolded, I felt like I was in grandma’s attic when the electricity had gone off, making up stories and using whatever props were handy to most effectively tell the tale. I’ve seen shows where the story was lost in the production, where the characters were shallow and the actors had nothing but makeup, music and set design to bring existence to their role. In the Fiasco Theater Production of Into the Woods, the 10-member troupe had nothing to hide behind. The storytelling giftedness of Sondheim and Lapine is enough to carry the show, but coupled with the directors’ fresh vision and a set of clever, versatile actors, this Into the Woods was brilliance on all fronts.
Although all characters are vital to the story, the weight of the Baker, Baker’s Wife, and the Witch must have been paramount to Brody/Steinfeld as they are the only ones not doubled. Evan Harrington as the Baker was warm and genuine and the one our hearts rooted for. Since he didn’t have to double characters, he was able to settle in and embrace the long, difficult journey from start to finish. His depth was beautifully rendered vocally at the end of Act Two in “No More” and “No One Is Alone.” The stunning Eleasha Gamble (the Baker’s Wife) was essential in reinforcing and questioning Sondheim and Lapine’s themes of wanting and wishing. She was always in a moment of discovery— about the world around her, about herself, about her dreams. In “A Very Nice Prince” and “Moments in the Woods” she embodies the volatility of the moment. Eleasha is vocally strong and intensifies the energy of the stage when she is in scene. The role of the Witch is played by the sexy and sassy Vanessa Reseland. Although she didn’t double a role, the contrast between the ugly, old Witch and the beautiful, young Witch was well played. I actually didn’t even realize until the second act that Vanessa was the Witch. When she was transformed to the young Witch, I felt as if a character from Fosse’s Chicago had landed on stage. Although I knew the music to come, I secretly longed for a little smoky number out of her. Vanessa’s ability to play loud, screechy, cold and evil, and then submit to maternal passions with Rapunzel was authentic and believable. She was almost able to conjure up an ounce of sympathy from my seat—a mite more than her predecessor Meryl Streep was able to garner from me. I felt that Vanessa was by far the strongest vocalist of the troupe. While often most remembered for “Last Midnight,” I especially loved Vanessa’s restrained tenderness in “Stay With Me” and “Children Will Listen.”
While the three non-doubling “leads” carried the emotional strength of the show, there was plenty of humor to lighten the heaviness of dashed hopes, foolish pursuits, and tragic deaths. If I had to pick an actor as my favorite of the evening, it would certainly be Darick Pead who masterfully alternated between the personalities of a cow (Milky White), a jealous ditz (Florinda), and an insatiable prince (Rapunzel’s Prince). Although a little slapstick in humor (which I tend to resist), his antics never crossed the line for me. Darick’s versatility in flipping characters, often in the same scene (occasionally in the same beat!) was unlike anything I’ve seen before. I continued to pick my jaw up as he spritefully deceived my mind into believing there were twice as many actors in the cast. His animation as Milky White was seldom overdone, and the brief stints as Florinda were credible. He obviously received more vocal “air time” as Rapunzel’s Prince and had the chops to back it up in the favorite duet and reprise of “Agony.” Anthony Chatmon II had similar doubling (tripling!) to Darick’s as the Wolf, Lucinda, and Cinderella’s Prince. Charming as he was (ahem), he was upstaged a bit by Darick’s intrinsic charisma. Nevertheless, Anthony held his own matched against Darick in “Agony.” Anthony’s greatest performance by far was as the Wolf in “Hello Little Girl.” The use of the “found item” wolf mount was pleasantly surprising and Antony used it brilliantly as only a masterful theatre artist can do.
Laurie Veldheer was a pleasant Cinderella, although not as fully embodied as I wished her to be. She was cute and quaint but slightly understated. I wanted a little more vocal oomph in “On the Steps of the Palace,” but she was very vocally appropriate and sweet in “No One Is Alone.” As Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel, Lisa Helmi Johanson dug deep and used every ounce of bratty kid and drama queen within her. She was fun to watch, although Red irritated me a little…but may just be the character. If she was going for irritating—score. Bonne Kramer had a tricky role flipping between the Cinderella’s Stepmother and Jack’s Mother. While the other actors’ doublings were highly contrasted, Bonne’s obviously were not. However, she was adept at moving back and forth and giving them each individuality. Patrick Mulryan as Jack/Steward held his own, however I couldn’t reconcile whether he was playing a child or a “failure-to-launch” young man. There was also some confusion about his obsession with animals and harps. Again, may have just been a schtick I don’t buy easily. His vocals in “Giants in the Sky” were impressive.
On the production side of things, one of my favorite aspects of The Fiasco Theater version were the use of found items to tell the story. The stepsisters wearing curtain dresses a la Carol Burnett, the mounted wolf head, the paper birds and Red Riding Hood’s mother tree out of a dress form were delightfully creative and unexpected. But perhaps my most favorite part of production was the cast creating all of the music live on stage. A horse clop, the bird whistles, the pounding of giants feet, and all of the accompanying music were played by the cast on the periphery of the set. What bliss to have a cast not only creative and well versed in acting and singing, but also all skilled musicians! From orchestral instruments such as oboe, trumpet and cello to more earthy sounds from a banjo, upright piano, guitar and even spoons, the breadth of talent was spectacular.
For those of you maybe a bit saturated by the glossy professional Broadway stage, you will appreciate the raw artistic merit of The Fiasco Theater Production of Into the Woods. Rush to see it. You will be surprised in the best way and might want to crawl up on stage and help tell the story. An unashamed nod to simplicity encourages audiences in the digital age to turn off the lights, camera, action and turn on the imagination for a novel and marvelous journey Into the Woods!
The Fiasco Theater Production
Playing May 16–28, 2017
at the AT&T Performing Arts Center Winspear Opera House
2403 Flora Street, Dallas, TX 75201
Performances run May 16–28. Tickets range from $25 to $200.
Tickets may be purchased online at attpac.org or by calling 214-880-0202.