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Review: INTO THE WOODS at Arvada Center is Nice - Not Good, Not Bad - Just Nice.

Review: INTO THE WOODS at Arvada Center is Nice - Not Good, Not Bad - Just Nice.

I'm not good, I'm not nice, I'm just right.

In the year since Stephen Sondheim's death, theatre companies around the world have mounted his productions to pay tribute to the late Broadway composer. Personally, Into the Woods has long been one of my favorite shows because of the many values it teaches along the journey through the woods: wishes come true, not free; opportunity is not a lengthy visitor; the slotted spoon can catch the potato. Taking my seat for the Arvada Center's latest production, I welcomed another opportunity to be moved by the music and lyrics. What I got, however, was a cookie cutter version of what is otherwise a classic tale all its own.

Sure, the set and costumes are expertly crafted and the cast is trained and capable, but these successes are overshadowed by direction that is at best questionable and at worst - offensive.

Let's start with the good. The production is not short admirable performances. Quynh-My Luu as Cinderella is among the standout performers. Her lyrical voice and warm character lend themselves to the role. Her portrayal of Cinderella comes with a rather grounded nature - I'm sensing a prominent Earth sign in her birth chart. Where she stays grounded, Nicole deBree as the Witch personifies a blazing fire, full of passion and purpose. deBree is futher equipped wtih a voice that truly elevates the character.

Then comes the bad. From production concept to performance choices, this production runs primarily in the middle of the pack. In more ways than one, the show suffers from an identity crisis out of an effort to "fringe-ify" the show. Instead of a set traditional of Into the Woods, the show is staged in a little girl's bedroom. Although the set is beautifully designed and crafted by Brian Mallgrave, there is not enough of a reason for the choice. It looks more like the nursery set from Peter Pan. Similarly, the show opens with an added pantomimed scene of the little girl and her nanny getting ready for bed. The whole bit felt manufactured and out of place - likely because it is not in the script. The little girl then goes on to simply sit on her bed for the entirety of the first act and generally do nothing. A better choice would have been to start the show in the bedroom and then through the magic of theatre the set could change and evolve until suddenly you're in the fairytale realm and continue the journey Into the Woods.

Perhaps the only choice that stands out as a reward for the risk is casting Ava Francis to play Milky White as opposed to the traditional method of using a prop for the cow. The relationship between Francis and Jack (played by Jack Wardell) was delightfully comedic and Francis makes the most of what is usually a "non-playable character." Rudy Martinez and Shannan Steele as the Baker and Baker's Wife, though veteran performers, were unconvincing as the young married couple trying to have a baby. There is not a lot of chemistry between them as actors nor as singers. Where Steele is steadfast and strong in her vocals, Martinez was often the first, though not the only cast member, to venture off-key. Aynsley Upton as Little Red has a lovely voice that is perfect for the role, but Upton could do more to establish some personality traits for the character beyond expert level singing. As the Narrator, Leslie O'Carroll does well enough in the role, though her wardrobe seemed out of step with the rest of the costume design by Clare Henkel. Double cast as the Mysterious Man, however, there - again - was not enough of an established (or even conveyed) reason to have her play this role in what amounts to "drag."

As a side note - the icon Megan Van de Hey is somehow still underutilized in her roles as Cinderella's Mother, Granny, and the Giant.

Finally, the ugly. For a company that starts each performance with a Native land acknowledgement and whose website contains a commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, I was shocked and dismayed by some of the directorial choices given Lynne Collins, the new Artistic Director of the Arvada Center. Choices that include, but are not limited to, stale and innapropriate tropes of gay men and people with disabilities. As a gay man, I sat in discomfort watching Cinderella's Prince (played by Cordell Cole) and Rapunzel's Prince (played by Jake Mendes) make what seemed to be a deliberate effort to play up the effeminate nature of the characters in rather stereotypical (and at times homo-erotic and incestual) ways as a vehicle to obtain laughs. It is a decision of which I strongly disagree. Both princes also suffered from the same identity crisis that plagued much of the production - one was much more of a Lord Farquad from Shrek and the other more suited for Beauty and the Beast (at least with regard to his vocals).

The most serious of issues, however, is their portrayal of people with disabilities. My first thought when Cinderella's Father (played by Barret Harper) came out in a wheelchair was that this was a wheelchair-bound actor (in part because the wheelchair itself looked like it could have been one from the lobby) and I was happy to see the representation. This proved to not be the case as toward the end of the first act, Harper jumps out of the wheelchair out of a burst of excitement. Mind you, there is nothing in the script that says Cinderella's Father is wheelchair bound meaning they went out of their way to stage the production in this manner. Later in Act II, after the two stepsisters (played by Madelyn J. Smith and Alison Bagli) have their eyes pecked out by birds and are blinded, there is a moment when the cast picks Harper up out of the wheelchair (and he stumbles around acting as if he can't walk) so that they can put Jack's Mother (played by Sharon Kay White) in the chair after being hit in the head - because taking someone who can't walk out of their wheelchair is apparantly funny. The stepsisters then give their walking canes to Harper who then begins to imitate someone with mobility issues and uses canes to walk. In the same scene, the group goes on to point in the direction of the Giant after hearing her approach. Whereas everyone else points in the direction of the Giant, the two blind girls are seen pointing off in different, separate, wrong directions - because obviously they also could not hear the giant. This specific bit is one I have seen before in other productions of this show and just as it was then, it is still stale and amounts to going after low-hanging fruit. It is also worth noting that Harper is significantly younger than the role he portrayed nor is he wheelchair bound. I guess the people who actually fit the mold they wanted to go with for this role were busy?

All in all, Arvada's production of Into the Woods is nice. It is a quality production in that they have the budget and resources to produce a high-level show. It is a shame that gross oversights diminished what I am sure was a lot of hard work for all those involved. Though perhaps it would have been opportune to be reminded that nice is different than good.

Arvada Center's production runs through October 9, 2022. For tickets, visit arvadacenter.org.




From This Author - Jon Bee

Jon Bee comes to Denver by way of St. Louis, MO. A longtime musician and thespian, he has worked with the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis, as well as STAGES St. Louis, both in the administrat... (read more about this author)


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