BWW Review: Alice Ripley, Tony Yazbeck, Kate Shindle, Betsy Wolfe Star in Cleveland Musical Theatre's INTO THE WOODS Concert
Despite an oeuvre that includes a questioning of the sanity of American social conventions and an exploration into the motivations of presidential assassins, INTO THE WOODS might be regarded as the most subversive of Stephen Sondheim's musicals.
With a plot that mixes familiar characters from the stories authored by The Brothers Grimm, the collaboration between the composer/lyricist and bookwriter James Lapine begins innocently enough, but as the action becomes more violent, the authors force audiences to weigh their empathy for the characters against their own sense of right and wrong.
Shortly before the final curtain, two parent figures sing to two children the lovely lullaby "No One Is Alone," which contains a lyrical reminder that the person you may think is the villain in your story often has justifiable reasons to consider you to be the evil one.
The complex themes are matched with a complex score that showcases a top shelf combination of heart-gripping ballads and archly comic numbers, each demanding first rate acting skills along with solid vocals.
The impressive cast brought together by Cleveland Musical Theatre for their one-night concert performance of INTO THE WOODS at The Town Hall was certainly up to the task. As explained by Artistic Director/Stage Director Miles J. Sternfeld and Executive Producer Sean Francis Patrick in a pre-concert welcome, the cast was made up entirely of people who were born and/or raised in Ohio, or who attended school in the Buckeye State.
They also explained that the concert was put together with just three days of rehearsal. With conductor/music director Jon Ranger's 14-piece orchestra playing Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations onstage, a 22-member student ensemble singing backstage and 22 actors playing their roles with scripts in hand there were naturally some glitches here and there, most likely caused by crowd control, but the company smoothly handled every challenge with endearing grace and humor.
And who knew Ohio could have produced such a perfect cast? Broadway powerhouse Alice Ripley is a natural choice to play the lonely witch who has been hardened by life's realities, handling the score's verbal dexterity and emotional belting with aplomb.
Tony Yazbeck, one of Broadway's top dancing stars, had his acting and singing skills on display this time, presenting a fine dramatic arc as the simple Baker who learns to mature as tragedy and parenthood present overwhelming responsibility. Kate Shindle, a fine singer not especially known for playing comic roles, did a great job with the dry, urbane humor of The Baker's Wife.
A pair of seasoned theatre veterans also provided some good laughs: Pamela Myers as the exasperated mother of the dimwitted Jack (of beanstalk fame) and Lee Wilkof, who gave The Mysterious Man of the woods a sharp borscht belt delivery.
Caitlin Houlahan's precocious Little Red Ridinghood, Jordan Matthew Brown's sweetly innocent Jack, Matt Bogart's shamelessly hungry Wolf and Julie James' bravura turn as the Narrator also provided highlights in a warm and enjoyable production brimming with talent.