Saturday, February 06, 2016

Lakeland Civic Theatre journeys INTO THE WOODS for wishes, choices and consequences

Most fairy tales start with “Once upon a time,” and end with “And they lived happily ever after.”  Ever wonder if “happily ever after” is really true? 

What really happened to Cinderella after she was whisked away from her wicked step-mother and became the wife of the prince?  Does Jack, of beanstalk fame, live a life of pleasure and riches after he climbed the stalk, stole the hen who laid golden eggs and the precious harp?  Was life a lark for Rapunzel after she was freed from her tower of imprisonment by her prince? 

Leave it to Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (book), who penned SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, MERRILY WE ROLE ALONG and PASSION to take audiences deep into the woods to find the “truth” of what happens to those “happily ever after stories,” and alerts that there are consequences for the wishes and choices we make.

The creators have interwoven the plots of many fairy tales, and incorporated the wishes of the characters into a thought-provoking musical, INTO THE WOODS.  Cinderella wishes to escape from the clutches of her wicked step-mother and go to the fair.  Jack wishes for wealth so his mother won’t make him sell his “best friend,” his cow, Milky White.  The baker and his wife want to have a child, but are thwarted in their desire by a curse placed upon them by their neighbor, a witch.

Through the first act, all of the wishes become reality.

The second act finds each of the character’s hopes rendering consequences.  Cinderella, now a princess, finds life in the castle, especially with the philandering prince, less than pleasurable.  Jack, who has climbed the beanstalk and found the Giant’s treasure trove, is seemingly happy after chopping down the stalk and killing the Giant, but now is being pursued by the Giant’s angry wife.  The baker finds that the much wanted child cries each time he is touched and the dynamics of the once happy relationship with his wife has changed. 

Destruction, death, and chaos.  Ecstasy, “Agony!, Misery! Woe!”

After finally killing off the Giant’s Wife, the survivors band together and rebuild their world.  The Baker’s Wife, who was killed by a falling tree, appears to comfort her grief-stricken husband, advising him to tell their child their story, but the Witch appears to remind him, “Careful the things you say. Children will listen.” 

The moral:  We all must venture into the woods but must remember that the things we wish for, and the choices we make, have consequences.

The memorable score includes “I Guess This is Goodbye,” “I Know Things Now,” “A Very Nice Prince,” “Agony,” “It Takes Two,” “On the Steps of the Palace,” Any Moment,” ”No More,” and “No One Is Alone.”

INTO THE WOODS opened on Broadway in 1987 to positive reviews and won several Tony Awards.  It has been revived several times, is one of the most produced musicals,  and  was made into an award-winning musical in 2014.

Martin Friedman, the Artistic Director of Lakeland Community College Civic Theatre, is a Sondheim aficionado.  He has directed many Sondheim scripts and has a depth of knowledge about the man and his writing. 

In general, the staging works.  However, there should have been a more sprightly pace and playfulness in the first act, with more emphasis on the humor, leading to a transition to the darker, serious tone of the second act.   Wisely, Trad Burns and Benjamin Gantose’s lighting, was brighter in the first act, more solemn in the second.  Too bad the pacing didn’t follow that lead.

The cast sings well, the musical vocal blends are nicely developed.  Musical director Jordan Cooper and his orchestra are well-tuned.

The cast was generally excellent.  Standout performers included Trinidad Snider as the Baker’s Wife.  She has a wonderful sense of dramatic and comic timing, a nice singing voice, and nicely textured the characterization. 

Neely Gevaart (Cinderella) followed her award winning performance in Lakeland’s VIOLET with another stellar portrayal.  Her “On the Steps of the Palace” was delightful and “No One is Alone,” sung with several other cast members, was emotionally moving.

Brian Altman nicely developed the Baker, showing changes in character as needed.  Jade McGee was cute as “Little Red Ridinghood.”  Amiee Collier’s final version of “Children Will Listen” was emotionally moving.  Frank Ivancic (Jack) did nice vocal interpretations of “I Guess This is Goodbye” and “Giants in the Sky.”

Trad Burns scenic design is creatively unique.  The play is about ideas, descriptions, and emotions, so Burns has created a “woods” composed of large black cutout words that convey the various emotions, descriptions and desires of the characters.  These include:  “scary,” “charming,” “dark,” “happy,” “agony,” and “wish.”  As the show progresses, the “word-trees” of the woods are moved.  The concept is excellent.  Too bad the movements didn’t parallel to the thoughts of the speakers or the intent of the scene to come.  As is, after a while, all the moving became a distraction.

Eric Simna’s sound design was problematic.  The Narrator was generally difficult to hear and anyone sitting in the side sections had difficulty hearing much of the dialogue.

Capsule judgment: INTO THE WOODS, which is yet another of Stephen Sondheim’s creative and challenging shows, gets a very credible performance at Lakeland Civic Theatre.  A lighter and more playful first act would have helped make the deep and thought-provoking second act more meaningful.  As is, the production should please those who like Sondheim’s works and appreciate the difficulty of staging one of his creations.

INTO THE WOODS runs Friday through Sunday from February 5-28, 2016, at Lakeland Community College, 7700 Clocktower Drive, Kirtland. For tickets call 440-525-7134.