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BWW Review: Syracuse University's Department of Drama Modernizes INTO THE WOODS

BWW Review: Syracuse University's Department of Drama Modernizes INTO THE WOODS
The company of Syracuse University's Department of Drama production of Into the Woods. Photo by Michael Davis.

Over the weekend I had the absolute pleasure of seeing Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods reimagined at the Storch Theatre in the Syracuse Stage Complex. Director David Lowenstein brilliantly brings those fairy tale stories and characters to life as if they were written and created for present times. Lowenstein and his cast of Syracuse University Drama students offer up a refreshing and captivating production that relates back to modern day sociopolitical issues, the celebrities in the news etc. The numerous pop culture references add to the experience, not detract from it.

However, ticket holders should be aware that the "look" of the production may not be what you expect. Cast your thoughts on what is traditional casting, costumes, etc. aside and put the film starring Meryl Streep and the Broadway production starring Bernadette Peters out of your mind. What's found onstage here is a completely unique approach to the musical.

The musical itself is inspired by the "Grimm's Fairytales." Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim and book writer James Lapine have familiar characters such as Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Prince Charming, and many more cross paths in the woods. The characters embark on a journey of self-discovery to find happiness. The dreams of those characters may come true but, the outcome is not exactly the perfect happily ever after they had hoped for.

It's always a risk to reimagine an already intriguing musical with a contemporary lens, but what I saw here was one of the most real and raw productions that I have had the pleasure of seeing. In the Director's note Lowenstein asks, "Why do we tell stories...the answer came in a line from The Baker's Wife, "Just calm the child.'" Lowenstein's production provides a different answer to the where and the why of Into the Woods. It's set in a bombed out building in the midst of a military conflict.

Jessica Ford's detailed scenic and costume designs are key to the reimagining effort. The bombed-out building where the story is set in is dark, intricate, and allows for effortless scene transitions. The costumes are perfectly modern. Some examples include a green track jacket, headphones, and cargo shorts for Jack (Joshua Kring). Little Red's (Michaela Vivona) cape is now a red hoodie, Cinderella's stepmother (Emma Vielbig) and stepsisters (Emily Britt and Shanel Bailey) look as if they are inspired by the Kardashian family. Rapunzel (Brooke Solan) wears a pink Hello Kitty nightgown. What modern day celebrity or celebrities inspired The Witch's (Stephanie Craven) look? You will have to see for yourself. It is shocking and takes some getting used to, but the outcome is perfection. Ford's attention to detail and creativity is a large part of what makes this production so highly impressive.

Likewise, Aria Sivick's lighting design adds to the dark story and emotions being conveyed. Sound designer Sasha Falsberg's work is on point as well. The artistic elements of a show can make or break a production. In this case, they contributed to its success.

The opportunity to work on such a creative production with professional and passionate directors as David Lowenstein and musical director Brian Cimmet is one of the reasons why Syracuse University is known for being such a top theater school. The cast members' talent and chemistry with one another is truly astounding. They provide exquisite vocals and give truly professional performances. Backed by Cimmet's powerful orchestra (visible behind the set), Sondheim's gorgeous music rings out as the talented drama students tell the story on stage.

The production features three narrators: Victoria Madden, Kristen Brown, and Grace Gentile. The girls portray other characters such as Cinderella's birds, Little Red's Granny, and the Giant, throughout the show. Each narrator clearly delivers the lines effortlessly and smoothly and their expressions and energy make their performances memorable.

Sondrine Bontemps is refreshing in the role of Cinderella. She demonstrates comedic timing, perfect chemistry, and maturity beyond her years in the role. Her beautiful soprano soars effortlessly in numbers such as "On the Steps of the Palace" and "No One is Alone."

Joshua Kring, as Jack, delivers a powerful rendition of "Giants in the Sky" that certainly does not disappoint. He is instantly likeable in the role. As Jack's Mother, Michelle Arotsky certainly knows how to land a line. She has impeccable comedic timing, and certainly knows how to work the "cat lady" outfit designed by Jessica Ford. Arotsky's confidence, spunk, and vocals make her an instant scene stealer. Noah Lentini may not really have had lines as the cow Milky White, but his facial expressions are absolutely entertaining especially in the number "It Takes Two." Lentini is also memorable as the Steward.

Michaela Vivona is adorable as Little Red Riding Hood in the role. She shows off some amusing choreography by David Lowenstein, particularly hip hop moves that are often seen in pop culture among some teenage celebrities. Vivona's vocals are perfect for the role, however, she was a bit softer spoken then the other cast members and a few of her lines got lost.

Markcus Blair dazzles every moment on stage as Cinderella's Prince and the Wolf 1. Blair is powerful, confident, and offers up a scene-stealing rendition of "Hello, Little Girl." Blair also has perfect chemistry with Caleb James Grochalski (Rapunzel's Prince/Wolf 2). Blair and Grochalski bring a comedic twist to the musical number "Agony" as they dramatically pull microphones from their suit jackets throughout the number - taking the spotlight and loving every minute.

As the Baker, Tucker Breder once again proves his vocal talent and charm. He showcases some amazing character growth and development throughout each scene. His chemistry with Madi Beumee as the Baker's Wife is perfection in numbers such as "It Takes Two" and "Maybe They're Magic." Beumee's stage presence and vocals are truly enchanting.

Stephanie Craven is creative and captivating in the role of the Witch. The look for this character is, in my opinion, the most shocking and drastic. I was shocked at first, and I'll admit it took some getting used to, but it had a great impact. Her comedic timing is first-rate and her vocals are chilling. "Last Midnight" is, of course, the Witch's big ending number and usually results in a wow moment, but Craven's interpretation is truly breathtaking. Craven is a standout performer.

The rest of the ensemble also has standout moments. There are no weak links in this production. As Rapunzel, Brooke Solan's vocals beautifully soars from her tower and she amusingly lets her hair down in a very creative way. John Aric Cleland delivers a memorable and emotional performance in "No More." as the Mysterious Man.

Portraying Cinderella's Stepmother, Emma Vielbig's facial expressions steal the spotlight when she dramatically reacts to the Giant or other characters, while taking selfies. Emily Britt and Shanel Bailey are hilarious in the roles of Cinderella's stepsisters Florinda and Lucinda, respectively. They are donned in over-the-top clothing and have a constant need to pose, post, or take selfies. Cormac Bohan, as Cinderella's Parent (her Father), seems to have a look inspired by Bruce Jenner since the stepmother and stepsisters scream Kardashian inspiration. Even though he does not have many lines, Bohan adds quite a bit of depth to the character as he perfectly reacts to the others around him.

This is a truly unique and risky production of Into the Woods but, the results are phenomenal and inspiring. It is a dark production. It is edgy, real. It is a must-see for those that appreciate creativity and true professionalism.

Running time: Two hours and fifty-five minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

Syracuse University's Department of Drama's production of Into the Woods runs through October 21, 2018 at the Storch Theatre at the Syracuse Stage/SU Drama Complex, 820 E. Genessee Street, Syracuse, New York.

For tickets, click here.

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From This Author Natasha Ashley