Monday, July 21, 2003

Into the Woods (Lakeland Theatre)

‘INTO THE WOODS’ strays off the path at Lakeland

The initial concept for the award winning musical ‘INTO THE WOODS’ was for writer James Lapine to devise an entirely original story. Instead, he hit upon the notion of uniting numerous characters from familiar literature: Cinderella, Little Red Ridinghood, Jack (of Beanstalk fame) and Rapunzel.

Lapine’s self-explained purpose was to show what happened in reality, in contrast to the “they lived happily-ever-after” endings purported in the fairy tales. A child psychologist explained the symbolism of the woods in these tales as "the place in which inner darkness is confronted and ...where uncertainty is resolved about who one is ... or who one wants to be." It is only when we see the light that we can really find our way and face our hidden fears.

Lapine's book is dark, wise and oft-times enchanting. When combined with the words and music of America’s most brilliant musical author Stephen Sondheim, the delightful first act was intended to be a sharp contrast to the lesson-teaching second segment.

Sondheim's score is gorgeous and witty, especially in the first act. The show contains such wonders as “Stay With Me” (often called “Children Will Listen” because of its key line), the poignant “No More,” and the lovely “No One is Alone.”

Unfortunately, instead of following the authors’ intent and purpose, Lakeland Theatre’s director Martin Friedman decided to stray from the path. As he states in his director’s notes, “With this production I have chosen to eliminate any of the sarcasm and excess cynical humor that the original production utilized.” With this change of emphasis, Lakeland’s production loses the play’s purpose. In contrast to words “delightful,” “wise,” “adorable,” and “meaningful” which were found in most of the reviews of the original 1987 Broadway show and its 2001 revival, words like “dreary,” “boring” and “gloomy” seem to better fit.

In the Lakeland production, Alex Wyse is delightful as Jack. This lad can sing and act. Sandra Emerick sings and interprets well the role of the Baker’s wife. Paul Floriano develops a believable character as the Baker. Emerick and Floriano’s rendition of “It Takes Two” is one of the show’s highlights. Toni Cervino is enchanting as Cinderella. She has a fine singing voice and gave a textured acting performance. As the witch, Maryann Nagel lets loose in the second act, after a too controlled first act. Her singing voice, as always, is radiant. Tiffany Gates sings the role of Rapunzel effectively. Donnie Long has a nice singing voice, but his portrayal of Cinderella’s Prince was shallow. Ryan Bergeron proficiently sings the role of Rapunzel’s Prince, but he overacts at times. Doug Farren was not believable as either the narrator or the mysterious man.

Some questionable blocking, awkward set changes, a good but over-loud orchestra which drowned out many of the spoken lines, boring choreography consisting mainly of cross-over steps and marching in place, mumbled lines, lack of articulation of song lyrics, some poor singing blends, and dark lighting spots on the stage, didn’t add to the festivities.

Capsule Judgement: This is not to say the show is to be avoided. That’s not the summary message. There are enough good moments to make the production enjoyable. But go realizing that instead of finding the clearing, the production gets lost in the woods.