BWW Reviews: A Mature, Bewitching INTO THE WOODS at Next Stop Theatre Company

BWW Reviews: A Mature, Bewitching INTO THE WOODS at Next Stop Theatre Company

The moment you step into Next Stop Theatre's production of Into the Woods you see a charming, old-fashioned mahogany-lined library with spiral staircase, its shelves chock full of books. Steven Royal's set creates just the sort of cozy atmosphere you'd expect for an evening of tale-telling. And once the live orchestra tunes up, you find that the cast is just as engaging and charming. Coming as they do-sometimes literally-into and out of the woodwork, the production is a long ride but one well worth taking.

Director Evan Hoffman has worked deftly with a strong cast who pop in and out of the action at a brisk, engaging pace. With a special turn by 'Today Show' anchor Kathie Lee Gifford (whose voice work is remarkably good), it's a special evening indeed.

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine collaborated on this edgy, modern take on the Grimm Brothers' fairy tales, many of which-truth be known-weren't originally written for children. Collected in the early 1800's as examples of German folklore, tales like Cinderella, Robin Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel have been so thoroughly bowdlerized in our day that it takes a strong hand like Sondheim's to remind us just how dark and sexually charged some of them were. It pays to remember that Cinderella's step-mother carves up her daughters' feet in a vain attempt to fit them into that slipper, while Rapunzel's encounters with that handsome prince end in out-of-wedlock motherhood.

And in a masterful twist, the show doesn't end with the usual "happily ever after" tableau; Sondheim creates a second act in which the "ever after" is far from happy. The characters even rebel and sacrifice their Narrator, leaving them all at the mercy of life without any guide to the future or moral to their stories. It's a none-too-subtle reminder that none of us are out of the woods, and the way out is often far from clear.

Ryan Manning gets the ball rolling as our jovial Narrator. And Brittany Martz shines as the wide-eyed, insecure Cinderella who in Sondheim's telling flees the Prince for reasons that any adult can recognize: fear of that great unknown territory known as marriage (a thicket, indeed). Complementing Martz is Sean McComas as Jack, a gentle, appealing country lad whose attachment to the family cow (staged cleverly here as a rolling bookcase) leads him on more than one adventure here. Nora Palka's Red Riding Hood, meanwhile, is every bit as voracious as her nemesis, the Wolf-who is played with no-holds-barred sexuality by the excellent Scott Gaines. It's hardly a coincidence that Gaines re-appears soon after as Cinderella's Prince Charming, who ends up making her "ever after" a nightmare (as happens all too often the guy was raised to be charming, not sincere).

By far the most commanding presence is Priscilla Cuellar in the role of the Witch-who turns out to be a far more complex and sympathetic character than we might think. Cuellar clearly has the chops for a big-stage production, and unlike others in the cast steers clear of the head-set mic (more on this later). Helicopter moms in the audience might squirm a bit as they realize that the Witch is really just an over-protective mother, who is ultimately powerless to keep her daughter (Rapunzel) from harm. Equally willful, although with a more measured voice, is Katie McManus as the Baker's wife; McManus teams up with the charmingly humble John Loughney as the Baker-characters loosely based on Grimm, but who serve here as the narrative thread that binds all the stories together. McManus could have gripped the stage like a tiger, but instead adopts a more human scale, which makes her selfishness that much more powerful dramatically.

One of the more effective bits of staging here is the giants' entrances; although unseen, they still manage to wreak havoc and send books tumbling by the score. Kathie Lee Gifford, who has worked with Next Stop in the past, lends her voice as the Giant's Wife-forget "Today Show," people, this is one ticked-off widow who doesn't care who gets trampled underfoot in her quest for revenge.

Kathy Dunlop has clearly had fun assembling a wide range of costumes, just "period" enough to evoke fairy tales, but her jarring modern touches-leaving Gaines' Wolf shirtless and with a leather mask stands out-remind us how close these characters are to our own time. Lighting designer Franklin C. Coleman makes excellent use of the black-box space, making the most of Steven Royal's 2-tiered set and moving easily from focused story-lines to big company numbers.

If there is one beef I have with this production-which is otherwise tremendous-it is with way some in the cast use head-set microphones. The Next Stop theatre space is intimate, there is need for amplification at all; one of the main attractions of their productions is the chance to see the actor's craft up close, without the technical frou-frou that often gets in the way at Washington's larger-scale venues. The live orchestra (another big reason to see the show-the musicians are real, y'all!) is safely tucked away offstage, and the musicians are perfectly capable of hitting just the right volume levels so that the singers don't get drowned out. From what I saw, all of these performers are perfectly capable of filling the space with their voices, and they would do well to ditch the technology, which is as jarring and distracting to see onstage as glowing iPods and iPhones are in the audience.

Parent's Advisory: Although "Into the Woods" contains many fairy tale characters children may recognize, it also contains mature themes including death, parenting, and infidelity, and it is not written specifically for children. When deciding what is appropriate for your children to see, remember: you know your children best.

A Note On Directions: If you're coming out to Next Stop from inside the Beltway, it can be a little tricky getting there because it's in the middle of an industrial park. If you take the Dulles Access Road going west, you look for the Fairfax Parkway exit (route 286), which is easy enough. The next few steps, however, are tricky: as soon as you make a right turn off of the exit, you get into the far left lanes and make the first left. This turn will wind around and put you on Spring Street, where you'll make a right and then an immediate left onto Sunset Park Drive, which is the industrial park. You'll pass by an Amphora Bakery on your right, and at the corner where you see the restaurant "A Taste of the World," hang a right and then the next left. Next Stop is about halfway down along the left-hand side.

Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes

Performances are May 1-June 1 at the Next Stop Theatre, 269 Sunset Park Drive, Herndon Virginia. Tickets can be ordered by calling the Box Office at 703-481-5930, or online at:

www.NextStopTheatre.org

Photo Credit: Traci J Brooks Studios

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Andrew White Choricius is the nom-du-web of a theater artist who has been involved in the Washington, D.C. scene in various capacities -- as actor, playwright, director, dramaturg -- for a number of years. Credits include Source, Woolly Mammoth and Le Neon Theatre. As a cultural historian and veteran of the Fulbright Program, he has devoted years of research to the performing arts of the Later Roman Empire (aka-Byzantium). In this bookish role he has translated, performed and published a variety of works from Medieval Greek. He holds a Ph.D. in Theater History, Theory and Criticism, and will soon be publishing his first full-length study on theater and ritual in Byzantium through a major university press in the UK. A Professor of Humanities, he currently teaches World Literature and World History in the greater Washington, D.C. area.


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