BWW Reviews: The Keeton Theatre's Enchanting INTO THE WOODS Packs An Emotional Wallop
If experience teaches us anything, it is that the road to hell is paved with good intentions (which is actually a proverb, but you get my drift) and that every other season or so, some theater company will mount a new revival of Into The Woods, the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical that paints a slightly skewed vision of several beloved characters from the "fairy" tales of The Brothers Grimm. Next week, in fact, New Yorkers will be treated to a star-studded production of the show in Central Park, but they have nothing on Nashvillians who are benefitting from the current production of the show now onstage at our very own Larry Keeton Theatre.
In fact, director Kate Adams and musical director Ginger Newman have crafTed Nashville's own lovely and, I daresay, star-studded version of the musical which simply proves once again that Into the Woods is one of the most enchanting, most entertaining and most moving examples of contemporary musical theater at its best. No matter how many times you've seen the show-for myself, this is probably the eighth or ninth staging I've seen, including Broadway, national tour, regional and local productions-the expertly crafted book and the awe-inspiring score still resonate, transporting you to another world, more fanciful than the one in which we live, yet imparting wisdom that can easily be applied to the real one in which we daily struggle with many of the obstacles faced by those fairy tale characters.
Hence, my reference to the proverb about the road to hell, for as those characters make their way deep "into the woods" in search of a better life or the answer to some conundrum through which they are working, the best of their intentions lead them straight into the abyss (aka hell, to my way of thinking). It's pretty heady, actually, and quite the intellectual quandary that is pondered by the habitués of these so-called fairy tales. Close examination reveals that in all of the stories related-Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, The Baker and His Wife, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel-the moral of the story quite often seems to be that despite their best intentions, parental figures in the stories don't have all the answers and that most of the trouble that ensues can be traced directly back to poor judgment on the part of authority figures.
Thus, in its very tuneful and intriguing way, Into The Woods questions our own reliance on the lessons taught by our parents and on our own decision-making process in full view of younger generations. The musical's recurring themes are particularly stirring in times of economic difficulty and political turmoil/upheaval-in an election year, when we're asked to choose between two father figures, both of whom are telling us they know what's best for us.
Perhaps that interpretation sounds at once to be too complex and too simplistic, but I urge you to give it some thought after the curtain draws shut on The Keeton Theatre's superb production of Into the Woods, which features some outstanding performances and which represents the very best of "community" theater in every sense of the word.
Led by an exceptional turn by Mallory Gleason in the role of The Witch that has been made justifiably famous by such actresses as Bernadette Peters and Vanessa L. Williams, The Keeton's Into The Woods is beautifully performed amid the sumptuous trappings of Jim Manning's exquisitely conceived and artfully realized set design which evocatively captures the musical's genesis in the books of our childhood.
Adams confidently directs her cast through the piece, her skilled eye and practiced directorial hand evident throughout as she creates stunning visual tableaux that bring the stories to life and interconnect them with a certain air of grace. Newman ensures that Sondheim's score is performed beautifully, using only two musicians on keyboards to give the show a full sound that is somewhat amazing given that very fact; the score is played with thorough commitment by Lee Druce and John Todd under Newman's assured conducting.
It matters very little how familiar you are with the show, its score or its story, Into The Woods continues to pack an emotional wallop and the show's finale remains one of the most moving, emotionally draining in recent memory. And the Keeton Theatre's finale measures up in every conceivable way, inspiring and touching you in some ways that are completely unexpected.
Quite frankly, Gleason's performance of The Witch is revelatory in its scope despite her already impressive resume. Last summer, she took on the role of Cassie in the Adams-directed production of A Chorus Line, which showed off her skill and her ability to lead a company, but it did little to prepare us for the startling portrayal of The Witch, which puts everything in her impressive acting arsenal on display. Before the metamorphosis that transforms her into the statuesque beauty that she is in day-to-day life, sans form-fitting evening dress, Gleason is almost frighteningly precise in her characterization, giving a bravura performance. Her scenes with Rapunzel (winningly played by the always delightful Tonya Pewitt) are both off-putting and heartrending as she allows us a glimpse into the Witch's psyche and her own longing to create a sense of family in her misguided, misanthropic way. Gleason's performances of "Last Midnight" and "The Witch's Lament" are rather haunting, while her role in the show's finale-"Children Will Listen"-may well be one of the finest renditions of that song I've heard. Hers is a performance you simply cannot miss.
The other performance in The Keeton's Into the Woods that will have you talking long after curtain-and laughing louder than you may think is socially acceptable in the intimate confines of the theatre during the show-is Janette Bruce's deft portrayal of The Baker's Wife. Bruce knowingly interprets Sondheim's music with aplomb and so much charm that it staggers you and she mines every one of her moments onstage for the biggest and best payoff, showing a comedic ease that comes only through experience and a complete focus on the task at hand. She interacts easily with the other characters, making certain that those musical moments are expertly delivered, including "It Takes Two" (with Anthony Just as The Baker, whose own performance grows in confidence as the play's action moves along its circuitous route to the show's finale), and "A Very Nice Prince" (performed with Laura Crockarell's Cinderella). Her "Moments in the Woods," which comes midway through the second act provides one of the production's finest musical highlights.
Adams surrounds Gleason and Bruce with a sterling collection of local actors who are to be commended for their commitment and focus, including the aforementioned Just, who is impressively passive/aggressive as The Baker; Pewitt as a slightly raucous and ribald Rapunzel and the lovely Crockarell as Cinderella (her "No One Is Alone" is an emotional tour-de-force that still makes my spine tingle when I remember her performance), whose performance shows off her character's significantly dramatic arc with tremendous alacrity. Young Stella London shows off her amazing range of talent and skill-which seems so unlikely for someone so young-as Little Red, imbuing her character with a precocious, all-knowing quality that is offset by her still evident innocence and youthfulness.
Jonathan Perry is well-cast as Jack, playing him with a wide-eyed sense of wonder and lack of guile that suits him so well. Perry gives fine voice to Jack's musical laments, particularly in the stirring "Giants in the Sky," which he sings with a beautiful sense of longing and barely disguised boyish fear. Elizabeth Hayes, as Jack's mother, makes the most of her all-too-brief times onstage to create a memorable performance.
Cast as Cinderella's unfaithful Prince with a wandering eye, Darin Richardson is in fine voice as the feckless royal, displaying his ample charm while creating the very picture of a roué. Flynt Foster fares less successfully as Rapunzel's Prince, but he nonetheless partners well with Richardson in the performance of "Agony," which remains one of the show's most welcome musical numbers.
RandAl Cooper is in fine voice as The Wolf, although his wolf snout prosthesis tends to muffle his voice in the way any common Halloween mask would do. Refusing to allow that to hold him back, Cooper delivers a particularly devilish and decadent performance as the predatory carnivore, only to show off his more urbane self as the royal family's ineffectual steward.
Among the large supporting cast, Kathryn Clubb (as Florinda) and Ellie Mellen (as Lucinda) are quite good as Cinderella's riotously evil stepsisters, with Carol Quinn embodying the very picture of a wicked stepmother.
Giving further tangible design support for the winning production, Laura Higgins dresses the cast in wonderfully character-driven costumes for their journey into the woods, while Kelly Landry provides the appropriately atmospheric and murky lighting that illuminates the onstage action.
- Into The Woods. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by James Lapine. Directed by Kate Adams. Musical direction by Ginger Newman. Presented by The Larry Keeton Theatre, Donelson. Through July 28. For details, go to www.thelarrykeetontheatre.com; for reservations, call (615) 883-8375.
Photos by Rick Malkin