Sunday, August 1, 2021

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 264, A Review: "Into the Woods" (Playhouse on Park)

 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 two-act musical "Into the Woods" turns all that good cheer and happiness upside down, inside out, left and right and on its head.
Ah, what fun! Ah, what joy!
Ah, what drama!
Ah, what hell!

At Playhouse on Park, a cozy, intimate, inviting space where a little night music can (and will) produce many, many smiles on a hot summer night or sunny summer afternoon, director Sean Harris' dark, inventive, vigorous and absolutely thrilling revival of Sondheim's 1987 Broadway musical wryly exposes the fun, the fantasy, the brashness, the tangled catastrophes, the sexiness, the homosexuality and the gender-bending theatrics of several fairy-tale characters who, much to our delight, don't get that happy ending they so longed for. Then again, that's the point of James Lapine's wildly insane plot, its grisly outcomes and its accidental demises, all of which are set to the pungent, eloquent and potent music and lyrics of the master himself - Mr. Stephen Sondheim.


As presented by Harris, this is "Into the Woods" as you've never seen it before. It not only harkens memories of the dark and gleeful original London production and the recent Broadway revival, but it thrusts this ravishing tale of fantasia and agony into a very new light. And therein, lies its enjoyment.

Here, the interwoven, marvelously textured fairy tales of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, the Wicked Witch, the Big Bad Wolf and the Baker and His Wife, among others, dance to a decidedly different beat.
Little Red Riding Hood, for example, is greedy, obnoxious 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 or have lusty thoughts about Rapunzel's Prince despite his supposed heterosexuality. 
Elsewhere, the beguiling 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. And the Big Bad but very sexy 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 egotistical but thoroughly obnoxious stepsisters of the lovely but misunderstood Cinderella, are willing to do anything to make the shoe fit (hilariously staged by Harris) including having their toe or heel cut off to fit into the now-bloodied glass shoe. Regardless, Cinderella still gets her handsome Price.

How all of this and more is played out, scene by scene and song by song, gives this wildly inventive revival of "Into the Woods" its heartbeat, its pulse and its emotional center. You laugh. You cry. You cheer. You grimace. You shake your head in wonderment. You have sexual thoughts about the characters. You embrace the musical's dark, involving, beguiling moments. You revel in its many twists, turns and surprises. And you sit there spellbound by the beguiling and sinister magic that unfolds right before your very eyes.

This is musical theater. Real musical theater.
You never doubt it for a moment.

At Playhouse in Park, Sean Harris' directorial credits include "Passing Strange," "In the Heights," "Angels in America," "Cabaret," "Hair" and "Of Mice and Men." His theatrical savvy, creativity and knowledge of theater - in this case, musical theatre - make him the ideal candidate to stage "Into the Woods." Though his eyes, this production dances to its own decidedly different beat as Harris beguiles, cajoles, excites and seduces his audience by using bold, twisty and very dark strokes to rock the Sondheim boat and add more mystery to Lapine's cleverly constructed conceit. It's a journey like no other and one that gives the story additional weight, spark, lust, intuition and surprise. Just when you think you have it all figured out, Harris purposely knocks you on your ass by moving the musical in a very different direction. What's exactly up his sleeve during this 2 hr. and 45 minute entertainment keeps you on the edge of your seat wanting more and more which Harris naturally supplies cloaked in the wonderment of it all. Cinderella's birds, for example, are used more effectively in this staging in all their wicked glory. The decision to add  "Our Little World," a cleverly sung character piece between the Witch and Rapunzel that Sondheim debuted for the original London production, is wisely included in this version by Harris. It not only adds shading and color and thought to the twisty and convoluted mother-and-daughter relationship of the Witch and Rapunzel, but works beautifully in telling how the actual story of these two characters plays out over each act.  

Staging "Into the Woods," Harris, auteur that he is, delves deeply into the intricacies of Lapine's book, its rhythmic wordplay, its quirks, its beats, its pauses and pulses, its sexual innuendo and its gender-bending underbelly. As the musical unfolds, he embellishes the gloom and doom of the author's vision, its not-so-terribly sweet concept, its atypical language, it's dicey predicaments, its playful paradoxes, its doomed couplings, its obsessions, its cowardice and its unhappy twists of fate.

Yes, there is a lot to digest. There's a lot going on. There's a lot of surprises. And sometimes, you're not too sure what's going to happen next. Then again, that's the point. Nonetheless, Harris knows exactly what buttons to push, when and how to take chances, how to build and develop each scene, how to keep every one of his characters in the spotlight, how to introduce each song without ever once bringing the onstage action to a halt and finally, have the audience eating right out of his hands. It's a process that works especially well here and one that deserves a standing ovation its own right. The inclusion of lots and lots of darkness, all used to full advantage by Harris, is another plus that makes one easily forget all those syrupy fairy tales served up in ice cream colors by that studio of once-upon-a-time fantasy known as Disney.

Choreography is key to the success of "Into the Woods" and nobody does it better than Darlene Zoller, a dance enthusiast whose creativity and individuality is wonderfully showcased in this exhilarating production. Here, as in "In the Heights" and "Mamma D's," Zoller is once again, at the top of her game. Not one to opt for simple choreography or replayed dance routines and rhythms, she puts her own personal stamp on everything she touches and thus, offers something that is very original, creative and timely.
With "Into the Woods," there isn't a lot of dancing. But when asked to create something that defines the musical's blueprint, Zoller knows what she wants and she runs with it. When people move, they just don't move to the beat of the music or engage in simplistic couplings. Instead, Zoller choreographs them using very beautiful poses, marching, beats and pairings that are decidedly different from other stagings of "Into the Woods." She creates something special. She creates something bold and daring. She creates something that is exhilarating. There is style. There is passion. There is sensuality. There is Fosse. There is fluidity. And that, is what Zoller is all about.

Musically, "Into the Woods" showcases Sondheim at his very best. That said, the actual complexity, richness and eloquence of his music and lyrics require the talents of a musical director who can not only due justice to the complicated musical score, but make its urgent musicality the centerpiece of the story without any form of hesitation. You get that - and so much more - with Melanie Guerin, the creative talent enlisted as musical director for this particular Playhouse on Park production.

Guerin whose musical credits at the West Hartford venue include "The Scottsboro Boys," "In the Heights," "Peter and the Starcatcher" and "Murder for Two" gives "Into the Woods" a certain individuality and expressiveness that adds a certain "jour de vivre" to the proceedings. Completely in sync with the Sondheim mindset, she allows his musical score to breathe, beguile, astonish, entice, cajole and echo lucidically the pulsating notes, the haunting sounds, the merry skips, the delicious beats, the frenzied panting, the twisty malevolence and wonderfully timed festering and gentleness the composer/lyricist has created. Moreover, not a piece of the Sondheim puzzle is missing under Guerin's exceptional showmanship.

To keep "Into the Woods" moving merrily along (no pun intended), Guerin has assembled an exceptionally fine, first-glass group of musicians to bring the pungent Sondheim score to life - Hillary Ekwall (cello), Elliot Wallace (percussion), David Uhl (bass), Cassie Cardarelli (horn), Olivia Moaddel (violin), Eugenio Figueroa (viola), Harry Kliewe (reed) and Andrew Studenski (reed). Working alongside Guerin, the orchestral details of their ensemble are lively, classic and accurately pronounced. There's plenty of payoffs and satisfying thwack. Every ripe and juicy Sondheim lyric rings loud and clear. The songs themselves are cleverly and meticulously crafted. Vocally, the entire cast is up to the challenge of the material under Guerin's (and company's) guidance, holding their own individually, in pairs or in groups, meeting the demands of Sondheim's intricate score as originally intended.

The performances of the entire "Into the Woods" cast are splendid.
As the scary, imperfect and strangely sinister Wicked Witch, the magnetic Tania Kass - a dead ringer for k.d. lang and just as talented - who gets to shed her frightening image for a very glamorous one at the end of Act I, the actress delivers an electrifying performance that nearly blows the roof off the Playhouse on Park venue. She has great fun casting spells, working magic, commenting on the doom and gloom of the story and wrapping her vocal chops around the wild and wicked Sondheim songs that were originally created for Bernadette Peters on Broadway and Julia McKenzie in the original West End edition. What's great about Kass is that she's no copycat. Here, she gives the musical performance of the season and puts her own individual stamp on both the music and the performance much to the delight of every one on stage and in the audience. She also naturally brings the right amount of emotional substance, wit, warmth, mystery and resonance to the piece. So much so, we eagerly await her every entrance.

The delightful, well-matched Robert Denzel Edwards and Laurel Andersen are completely engaging in their respective roles of the Baker and the Baker's Wife. Given the many levels, emotions, beats and twists they are required to make as the musical's childless couple, these are not easy roles to play. But they get it right every time. Vocally, they sing the Sondheim songs with snap, vigor, passion, and precision. And 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. Regardless, we are with them every step of the way.

In the role of the shifty and naughty Little Red Riding Hood, Jackie Garmone brings authentic voice, wit, whimsy, danger, greed and well-timed cheekiness to the part. She never once steps out of bounds or turn things into caricature or cartoon. She is the real deal as dictated by her savvy acting, double takes and acerbic line delivery. They don't come any more magical than Jaquez Linder-Long who acts and sings as if he stepped out of an enchanted book of fairy tales and landed smack, dab in the middle of the Playhouse on Park Stage. He's perfect for the part of Jack and 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 full, rich, voice and moist-eyed innocence that Sondheim intended for the both material and the character.

Cast in the pivotal role of Jack's caring, overprotective and sometimes misunderstood mother, Zoe Goslin offers a beautifully rounded performance that embraces both Lapine and Sondheim's version of the character. Throughout "Into the Woods," her characterization is real, compassionate and rife with humor and motherly concern. There is never any doubt that she and Long are mother and son and their individual scenes together are joyfully rendered. Jack Dillon (Cinderella's Prince/Wolf) and Isaac Kurber (Rapunzel's Prince) are charming, handsome, wicked,  flirtatious, egotistical, narcissistic and winningly affected. They are fun to watch as they play their parts to the hilt, capitalizing upon their handsomeness, kingdom worship and possible gayness,  You never once doubt their moves or motives for a moment as they sing not once, but twice about the "Agony" of their newfound and unobtainable loves, reveling in the misery, angst and heated desires of their troubled plights. Much earlier, we also find Dillon singing the pungent, sexually charged "Hello, Little Girl" to Little Red Riding Hood as the crazy and dangerous Wolf. It's a performance that comes replete with some very suggestive dancing (Zoller's dance moves are absolutely perfect) and comic exaggerations, which the actor handles playfully and effortlessly.
Vocally, he and Kueber hit all the right notes with plenty of versatility and drive as they revel and cajole Sondheim's demanding, tricky music. Their signature, slightly over-the-top poses as the handsome princes of the kingdom are a source of genuine merriment throughout they production. And yes, they have as much fun as we do watching them.

As Cinderella, Kara Arena 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 smartly and convincingly portrayed. There's also also a certain charm, beauty, and bewilderment to her characterization which keeps things very natural and authentic in both Act I and Act II. Hallie Friedman's Rapunzel is lovely and alluring. She screams magnificently and possesses a gorgeous soprano voice that is used quite advantageously throughout the "Into the Woods" story. Her pivotal "Our Little World" duet with Kass is a genuine showstopper that sheds insight on their not-so-perfect familial ties. 

In both the original Broadway and London production, the part of the Mysterious Man/ Narrator was nothing more than a rather obvious plot device designed to bring the entire fairy tale story to life. But in this version under the direction of Sean Harris, the wonderfully animated and charismatic Chris Bellinger crafts a rich, emotionally satisfying performance that is magical, earnest and very full of life.
Cinderella's black-of-heart stepsisters Lucinda and Florinda are played with devious glee and wickedness by Sandra Mhlongo and Bianca Day Feiner. Olivia Rose Barresi 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 great fun getting these points across and others  without losing the intended wickedness of their exaggerated characterizations. Danny Kelly's Steward also makes a fine impression as does the ensemble work by Katie Brough and Trishawn Paul. 

Bright, dark, energetic, thrilling and eerily hypnotic, this revival "Into the Woods" is well worth the journey and demands to be seen. So follow the path. Embrace the characters. Experience the music. Listen to the lyrics. And remember, not all fairy tales have happy endings in this exhilarating  reenactment of Sondheim's celebrated musical given new light by director Sean Harris and his very talented "Into the Woods" cast and production team.

Production photos of "Into the Woods" by Meredith Longo.

"Into the Woods" is being staged at Playhouse on Park (244 Park Rd., West Hartford, CT), now through August 22.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 523-5900.

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