RAY OF LIGHT FINDS THE HUMANITY WITHIN FRACTURED FAIRY TALES
Into the Woods has been produced many times since its 1987 Broadway premiere, but it is unlikely to have benefited from as ebullient a cast as the one seen at the Eureka Theatre last Friday. Ray of Light Theatre’s high-energy ensemble conveyed enthusiasm and an infectious bouncy energy with nearly flawless performances in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s darkly enchanting musical gem, which uses an ingenious intertwining of plots taken from several Brothers Grimm fairy tales to tell a whole new story.
Director Eliza Leoni’s cast shines from within because Scenic Designer Annie Dauber employs a fittingly spare, naïve and charming set. Her dark woods echo the 1920’s German Paper Theatre motif used in the design of the play’s handbill and poster. Cathie Anderson’s multicolored lights glimmer on the rustic forest, which is made up of folkloric trees dusted with autumnal leaves hanging star-like overhead. Dauber is undaunted by the theatre’s small stage as the narrative, literally and metaphorically, is divided into three parts: A wooden bakers rack at one end humbly suggests the home of the Baker (Austin Ferris) and his Wife (Marisa Cozart); a dairy cow and milking bench in the center is the home of Jack (Kyle Stoner) – a la the Beanstalk – and his Mother (Nancy Sale); and a primitive roasting pit at the far side belongs to Cinderella (Courtney Merrell).
Along with the Witch (Michelle Jasso) who lives next door to the Baker, these are the main characters that drive the initial action, but without Leoni’s precision streamlining, what might have been a confusing web of interlinked characters busily crisscrossing a tiny space becomes palpable magic. With such a sprawling array of interwoven narratives and Sondheim’s discordant dissonances, complex lyrics, and tricky-quick rhymes, there’s a real risk of an audience getting lost in this storybook musical. This production works because it concentrates on the humanity of the main characters.
Others who populate the stage include a narrator (Derek Travis Collard), Cinderella’s mother (Angela Jarosz), stepmother (Nikki Arias) and stepsisters (Danielle DiPaola and Caitlin O’Leary), Rapunzel (Melissa Reinertson), two Princes (David Naughton and Ted Zoldan), and even a Steward (Jerry A. Deal). They will meet on intersecting paths of hopes, wishes, dreams and tragedies as they fulfill their individual quests, even if that just means finding lunch. The latter occurs in a scene with the incandescent Allison Meneley as a spitfire Little Red Riding Hood, and a delightfully campy John Flaw as the Wolf who courts his future meal in “Hello Little Girl.”
Ferris expertly tackles the Baker, the lynch pin role in the musical; he is the true “Everyman.” The lithe Ferris avoids camp and overt sentimentality, using his melancholic eyes and vulnerability to show how he grapples with the ethics of his quest. He is the character with whom we most identify, and his unassuming manner when he quietly empathizes with the struggles of others is guaranteed to win hearts. At first, Merrell plays Cinderella as a pretty cipher, but she genuinely matures into an admirable woman infused with pathos. This makes sense when Cinderella faces her own difficult choices and eventually renounces her royalty to live a humble but more meaningful life in the forest.
Jasso starts off charismatically enough playing the Witch, completely engaging us as the controlling old crone. Once the Witch regains her youth and beauty, however, Jasso loses dramatic power, lacking a sense of purpose and a much-needed threatening quality. As such, it is baffling why she continues to intimidate the other characters once her magic muscle disappears.
Anton Hedman’s sound design is an all-important aspect which needs more meticulousness: The demands of the Sondheim score are challenging, and the authentic and endearing cast require help when they occasionally lapse into poor articulation and projection (Forbidden Broadway’s parody of “Into the Woods” was “Into the Words”). This issue was complicated by David Möschler’s terrific orchestra, which sometimes overwhelmed the singers. Hopefully, this was an opening night gaffe, as we want to hear every juicy lyric.
Lapine’s work feels overlong in the second half of Into the Woods. The great burst of energy in Act I gives way to a much darker tale that occurs once everyone has a happy ending. To some, the random and arbitrary nature of the fates that finally befall the characters may be a letdown. At first, it seems the Witch will be the essential element in tying together a knot from the many disparate narratives, but the convoluted stories do not coalesce through her as she sings “Last Midnight,” a song which was also diminished by Jasso’s less than ideal vocal power and lack of clear annunciation.
While Sondheim successfully mines the characters for psychological motivations, the various tragedies that afflict these storybook figures in Act II are not always the result of wishing for the wrong thing (even with the lyrical admonition to “be careful what you wish for!”). The deus ex machina events that literally fall from the sky are unsatisfying, and the script becomes too much like real life, with the fate of most left to chance. But perhaps that is the creator’s Candide-like point.
Nevertheless, the show abounds with clever dialogue and insights into the human condition, and Sondheim’s intelligent complexity is in full display, giving the audience more to chew on than the Wolf gets. This winning production does an excellent job at drawing our attention away from any vacuity at the play’s core. Loose ends are wrapped up with beaming smiles and the ensemble shines with an alacrity that rouses the audience. Regardless of any issues one may have with the second act and the sound, this is a great – and highly recommended – production.
Into the Woods
Ray of Light Theatre
Eureka Theatre (Jackson @ Battery)
scheduled to end on June 29, 2013
for tickets, visit http://www.rayoflighttheatre.com