BWW Reviews: Sondheim's INTO THE WOODS A Magical Force at Milwaukee's Skylight

In conceiving a contemporary fairytale masterpiece, the legendary Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine compose and write of why these fantasies and tales resonate in modern culture with their incredible Into the Woods. The renowned musical makes theatergoers' wishes come true in the Cabot Theatre when Skylight Music Theatre locally sources a marvelous cast that will make hearts melt under award-winning Edwin Cahill's direction.

Cahill imparts Milwaukee's personal touch to the cast with the main characters, the Baker and the Baker's Wife, costumed in boho, 21st century clothing. Notice an over-the-shoulder bag that reads "Beans and Barley." the city's East Side, popular vegetarian bakery-restaurant. Cahill asks for a tongue-in-cheek jumorous delivery to Lapine's book, although by the second act, silence overcomes the audience as Jack's woman giant destroys much of this fairytale world when climbing down the vine grown from the Witch's magic beans.

After the musical's award winning 1987 debut, few musicals have touched on, speak the myriad depths inherent in the parent-child relationship as has Sondheim and Lapine's Into The Woods. Parenthood, a wish for many adults, takes center stage and then resonates on multiple levels with anyone who has a parent or has been a parent.

Entangled through each scene and song, resembling the dangers of the woods in the musical, the audience faces the true stories lurking in their own past or present: A barren baker and his wife who wish to have a child, the baker abandoned by his own father as a child because his father felt guilty. A Witch who laments her daughter's (Rapunzel) coming of age and continually tries to shield her daughter, now entranced with a prince, from an evil world when she sings, "Who loves you more than I?"

Another mother loves her son (Jack and the Beanstalk) despite his foolish ways, yet he obeys his mother and brings her the desires of her heart, wealth. A young girl (Red Riding Hood) tries to remember her mother's advice, "Don't stray, Stay on the path," when she takes treats to her ailing grandmother, and learns the hard realities of this journey in the song, "I Know Things Now," And central to this story, in the age old Cinderella tale, a vain Stepmother and her two daughters mistreat the adopted daughter, who seeks solace at the grave of her true mother. Intwined in each song, listen to these truths, because "Children will listen, do what you do, hear what you say... wishes can cast a spell far behind what you can see."

Skylight assembles a star-studded cast for this spellbinding season finale and includes the Baker's Wife, Karen Estrada, who absolutely sparkles in this role, one of her best. as a luminous force on stage, equalling Natalie Ford's exceptionally enchanting Cinderella. Susan Spencer's Witch transforms from manacling to glamorous in an instant, loosing her magic powers along the way. Rhonda Rae Bush gives a rich performance in the role of Jack's frustrated and then delighted although horrified mother when she learns Jack stole from the giant to make her wealth reality. Playing the girl in the cape Little Red Ridinghood, Kaylee Anable gives her all in ther solo "I Know Things Now."

Associate Artistic Director Ray Jivoff plays a dual role and narrates the story, in two pitch-perfect characters. As the Baker, Jonathan Altman counters Estrada with a tender commanding personality, equally frustrated as the father unable to comfort his newborn son. The two Prince Charmings, Joe Fransee and Ian Toohill, live up to "raised to be charming instead of sincere"-and dramatically sing to the allure of the unreachable in "Agony.," although Ryan Stajmiger gives Jack a unique charm of his own. To create thei intense Into the Woods theater magic,

Lighting and Scenic Designer Peter Dean Beck imagine mile high beanstalks, forbidden towers, and great giants that combine with costumes designed by Shima Orans. A 14-piece orchestra conducted by Mark Mandarano accompanies the musical in sophisticated Broadway style.

While Sondheim travels to psychologically dark places in his Into the Woods, similar to the original Brothers Grimm fairytales, he may subconsciously carry these horrors from his his own childhood, Yet he powefdully reminds the audience a happy ever after can be timelessly possible. When disappointment, disillusionment and unfortunate loss happen along life's way, Sondheim composed, "No One is Alone." Fresh paths through the woods are forged, reconciliation occurs and new wishes may come alive, places where "Witches can be right...Giants can be good."

Sondheim and the Skylight's wondrous Into the Woods reexamine with refreshing wit and incredible melodies the joy and sorrows of parenthood, marriage, life itself, while celebrating the magical force of merely appreciating the present. Perhaps like Cinderella, the Skylight audience might conclude: "My father's house was a nightmare, the castle was a dream, now I want something in between."

Skylight Music Theatre presents Into the Woods in the Cabot Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center through June 14, just before there annual Skylight Night, Once Upon a Time, on June 20. For more information or tickets please call: 414.291.7800 or

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From This Author Peggy Sue Dunigan

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