By James V. Ruocco
The classic fairy tale promised a life of happily ever after. As did the big, old-fashioned Broadway musical with its typical flights of whimsy, giddy hopes and dreams and dazzling coats of many colors.
Stephen Sondheim's dark, deliciously wicked "Into the Woods" turns all that good cheer upside down, inside out and on its head.
Ah, what fun! Ah, what joy!
Ah, what drama!
Ah, what hell!
At Musicals At Richter, that sublime outdoor theater park, where a little night music can (and will) produce many, many smiles on a summer night, director/choreographer Bradford Blake's inventive, vigorous, thrilling revival of Sondheim's 1987 Broadway musical wryly exposes the fun, the fantasy, the brashness, the tangled catastrophes, the sexiness and, oh yes, the grisly outcomes of several fairy-tale characters who, sadly, don't get that happy ending they so longed for.
Then again, that's the point of James Lapine's merrily insane book and Sondheim pungent and potent music and lyrics. This isn't Disney, folks. It's Sondheim, in all its ravishing fairy tale fantasia and agony.
Here, the interwoven fairy tales of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, the Wicked Witch, the Big Bad Wolf, the Baker and His Wife, among others, dance to a decidedly different beat.
Little Red Riding Hood, for example, is greedy and psychologically damaged. She also carries a knife.
The Prince, charming as he is, dazzles and marries the beautiful Cinderella, but he can't resist the urge to have sex with several other lovelies including the Baker's Wife.
Rapunzel accidentally runs into the path of the Giant and gets trampled to death, much to the horror of her handsome, narcissistic Prince and the Witch. She also gives birth to two adorable twin babies much earlier.
The Big Bad Wolf is not only hungry for Little Red Riding Hood's Granny, but he too longs for a bit of you-know-what and this-and-that in the darkened corners of the magical woods.
And what about the famous glass slipper, you ask?
Lucinda and Florinda, the obnoxious stepsisters of the beautiful, misunderstood Cinderella, are willing to do anything to make it fit including having their toe or heel cut off to fit into the now-bloodied glass shoe. Ouch!
How all of this and more, plays into being gives "Into the Woods" its heartbeat, its pulse, its emotional center. You laugh. You cry. You cheer. You grimace. You shake your head in wonderment. You embrace its dark, beguiling moments. You revel in its many twists, turns and surprises.
This is musical theater. Real musical theater.
And Sondheim, master craftsman that he is, takes his audience on one helluva ride that rolls merrily along quite brilliantly.
And luckily, for us, it is director Bradford Blake's unique, satiric take on "Into the Woods" that makes his staging of the Tony Award-winning musical explode, dazzle, cajole, excite, surprise and seduce.
What separates this incarnation from other productions of the same name is Blake's decision to take chances, fly his own kite, add elements from both the 1990 London production and 2002 Broadway revival, and rock the Sondheim boat, so to speak.
In this "Into the Woods," you get not one Narrator, but eight.
Jack's cow, Milky White, is now a human male who smiles, sings, speaks, cries and reacts to the storybook action around him. Great idea!
"Hello, Little Girl," the hungry wolf's big solo to Little Red Riding Hood, is now a duet with a second wolf, dressed in the same wolfish costuming. It also features an intuitive cameo by the Three Little Pigs. Love it!
"Our Little World," a cleverly sung character piece between the Witch and Rapunzel that Sondheim debuted for the original London production, is wisely included by Blake in this version to give added shading, and color and thought to the twisty and convoluted mother-and-daughter relationship of the Witch and Rapunzel. It works beautifully.
The fairy tale book concept of the original Broadway musical is enlivened by carefully constructed, painted storybooks that serve as platforms, stairs or parts of the enchanted forest. These set pieces are also moved about the Richter stage by performers, dressed in storybook costumes, who pause, listen, react or comment (when necessary) on the action. Perfect! Just perfect!
Lastly, Cinderella's birds, are also humanized for this telling. What they do and how they do it is ingeniously staged by Blake in all its wicked glory. Their little blue hand props are absolutely perfect.
Anyone familiar with the works of Sondheim knows immediately that "Into the Woods" requires a director who understands the intricacies of the story, its music and lyrics, its characters, its rhythmic wordplay, its quirks, its beats and its pulses. Staging the two-act musical, Blake embellishes both the darkly thematic underbelly of the composer's and author's vision, its atypical language, it's sugar-coated gloss, its predicaments, its playful paradoxes, its doomed marriages, its cowardice, its unhappy twists of fate, its surprises and finally, it's gloom and doom under the last midnight.
Yes, there is a lot to digest. But Blake's such a clever and ingenious impresario, he always knows what buttons to push. His "Into the Woods" evolves and evolves and never once stops dead in its tracks. Blake always knows where to put the focus, how to build and mold it, how to keep every one of the characters in the spotlight and how to introduce a song and have it play out in its entirely without ever once bringing the onstage action to a halt.
Yes, there's a lot of plot information unfolding, a Sondheim/Lapine trademark that Blake merrily sets in motion, using choice, colorful staging, movement, set changes, props, colors and lots and lots of well-orchestrated whimsy. The audience, in turn, is immediately thrust head first into the action, smiling and laughing and cheering anxiously awaiting Blake's next move. What's next in Blake's never-ending bag of tricks, you ask? So, so much. So very, very much.
There's also an element of boldness to Blake's retelling of "Into the Woods." In "Any Moment," a flip and playful number where Cinderella's Prince happily seduces the Baker's Wife, Blake spices things up a bit, first by adding some very potent, passionate kisses between the couple that are followed by some carefully timed bits of clothes falling, a hint or two of princely naked flesh and some very tasty copulation that leaves both characters thoroughly exhausted and drained by their anxious, excited sexual delirium. The Baker's Wife, of course, wants more (and so does the audience), but Cinderella's Prince reveals that this "was just a moment in the woods."
With each revival of "Into the Woods," the show's musical appeal and fascination (particularly among musical theater buffs) becomes even more urgent, irresistible and complex. In turn, Sondheim's killer lyrics and killer music require a musical director who can not only do justice to the piece, but make it ripple like the winds on a breezy summer night or make it pop and explode like a case of vintage Haut-Brion, priced at £19,309.60. You get just that with Daniel Michael Koch, the musical director for Richter's "Into the Woods."
Koch whose musical credits include "Sweeney Todd," "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Assassins" and "Ragtime," allows Sondheim's score to breathe, beguile, astonish, entice, cajole and echo lucidly through the moonlit woods of Richter Park. It's all here and superbly displayed and played: the pulsating notes, the haunting sounds, the merry skips and beats, the joyfulness, the angst, the celebrations, the malevolence, the gentleness, the festering, the frenzied panting, the parodies, the surprises. Not a piece of the Sondheim puzzle is missing. Well done, Mr. Koch.
Moreover, the complexity, greatness and richness of the Sondheim score (under Koch's tutelage), holds its own throughout the musical's fast and breezy 2 hrs. 40 min. running time. The songs are clever and remarkable enough and often grow on you. You might even be tempted to sing along or tap your feet to the ongoing beats at hand.
They include the snappy and melodic opening number "Into the Woods," the beguiling "Giants in the Sky," "No One is Alone" and "Last Midnight," the playful "It Take Two" and the seemingly profound "Children Will Listen."
To keep "Into the Woods" soaring, Koch has assembled an exceptionally fine orchestra. They are Anna Demasi, Sarah Tusch, Kate Diaz, Jessica Stein, Daniel Frankhuizen, Charles Casimiro, Bob Kogut and Jessica Pietrosanti. The orchestral details are lively, sharp-witted and splendidly audible. There's plenty of payoffs and satisfying thwack. And as "Into the Woods" burrows from its bubbly, cheeky surface into the thorny world of death, destruction and survival, the music never once overpowers or stumps the actors. You hear every ripe and juicy Sondheim lyric loud and clear.
As the ugly, imperfect Wicked Witch who gets to shed her scary image for a glamorous, diva-like wardrobe near the end of Act I, Tracy Marble is perfectly cast. She has wicked fun casting spells, working magic, commenting on the doom and gloom of the story and wrapping her vocal chops around the delicious Sondheim songs that were originally created for Bernadette Peters on Broadway and Julia McKenzie in London. Vocally, she doesn't copy Peters at all. She puts her own individual stamp on both the music and the performance and brings just the right amount of emotional substance, warmth, mystery and resonance to the piece. We eagerly await her every entrance.
The well-matched Nathan Mandracchia and Carey Van Hollen are absolutely delightful in their respective roles of the Baker and the Baker's Wife. These are not easy roles to play. There's so many levels, colors, emotions, beats and twists required to bring this childless couple to life. But this talented duo get it right every time. The roles once played by Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason in the original 1987 Broadway production seem tailor-made for this talented duo.
Mandracchia and Van Hollen sing Sondhiem's songs with snap, zest, passion, and precision. Their reenactment of a childless couple anxious to lift the Witch's curse of infertility (The Witch caught the Baker's thieving father in her garden one night stealing vegetables and six magic beans) is effectively played out from start to finish until a cruel twist of fate changes everything forever. Nonetheless, we are with them every step of the way.
Making her Richter debut as Little Red Riding Hood, Tori Vacca brings authentic voice, wit, whimsy, danger, greed, warmth and bloody well-timed cheekiness to the role. She never once steps out of bounds or turn things into caricature or cartoon. She is the real deal, from her splendid singing and dancing to her savvy acting, double takes and acerbic line delivery. And she is just as delightful and memorable as Danielle Ferland who created the part in the original 1987 Broadway production.
They don't come any more magical than Tyler Carey who acts and sings and looks as if he stepped out of an enchanted book of fairy tales and landed smack, dab in the middle of Richter Park under the stars. He's not only correct for the part of Jack, but like Vacca, he adapts beautifully to the story at hand, its comedy, its drama, its pain, its uncertainty and its trauma. He delivers the melodious "Giants in the Sky" and the tearful "I Guess This is Goodbye" with the rich, full adolescent voice and moist-eyed innocence that Sondheim intended for the material.
In previous staging's of "Into the Woods," Priscilla Squiers played both Cinderella and the Baker's Wife. Here, she finds herself cast in the pivotal role of Jack's wise, caring and overprotective mother. It's a role that the actress embraces with that same sort of professionalism, warmth and understanding that categorizes all of her work. And yes, she loves, understands and enjoys all things Sondheim. It's obvious from the moment she appears in stage. She sings appealingly and beautifully. Her characterization is real, compassionate and rife with humor and motherly concern. And there is never any doubt that she and Carey are mother and son. Their individual scenes together are an absolute joy to behold.
Vocally, Mandujano and Moores hit all the right notes with plenty of versatility, passion and drive as they revel and cajole Sondheim's demanding, tricky music. Their signature, slightly over-the-top poses as the handsome princes and their leaps across the Richter stage are also a source of genuine merriment.
The delightful Betsy Simpson, as Cinderella, finds real meaning and depth in her character's troubled world of "happily ever after" and "not so happily ever after." Yes, she snags the handsome prince, but she still enjoys cleaning and yearns for something much more than the "hi, ho glamorous life" of the palace. Her vocals "A Very Nice Prince" and "On the Steps of the Palace" are real and convincingly rendered. There's also a certain beauty, poise, grace, bewilderment and discovery to her characterization which keeps things authentic instead of cartoonish.
Cassandra Bielmeir's Rapunzel is lovely and alluring. She screams magnificently and possesses a lovely and gorgeous soprano voice that is used quite advantageously throughout the "Into the Woods" story. Her pivotal "Our Little World" duet with Marble is a genuine showstopper that sheds insight on their not-so-perfect familial ties.
At first glance, the part of the Mysterious Man/ Narrator is nothing more than a typical plot device designed to bring the entire fairy tale story to life. But in this version, the wonderfully animated, high-spirited Patrick Spaulding refuses to opt for one-dimensional characterization and storytelling. His performance is magical, earnest. Sondheimesque and very full of life..
Cinderella's black-of-heart stepsisters Lucinda and Florinda are played with devious glee and wickedness by Emma Giorgio and Natalie Harde. Beth Bria Salvador completes the nasty trio as Cinderella's Stepmother. All three are appropriately vile spitting out insults, glaring at Cinderella and flouncing about in their Festival ball gowns. They have as great fun getting these points across throughout "Into the Woods" as we do watching them.
The idea of humanizing Milky White is a stroke of genius that Will Armstrong eagerly embraces. The actor oozes plenty of charm, gusto, good cheer and playfulness to make the character completely palpable. His reaction to the ongoing fractured fairy tale that surrounds his character and all the others who romp about the Richter stage is genuine, real and three-dimensional. He also doubles as one of the Narrator's. Again, more unbridled magic. He is a very talented young man,
Bright, dark, energetic, thrilling and eerily hypnotic, this "Into the Woods" is well worth the journey. Follow the path. Embrace the characters. Experience the music. Listen to the lyrics. And remember, not all fairy tales have happy endings.
("Into the Woods" photography by David Henningsen)
"Into the Woods" is being staged at Musicals At Richter (100 Aunt Hack Rd, Danbury, CT) through July 1.
Performances are 8:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The grounds open at 7:15 p.m. for picnicking.
For more information, call (203) 748-6873.