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BWW Reviews: INTO THE WOODS at Clarksville's Roxy Regional Theatre

As affecting and engaging as it has ever been, Stephen Sondheim's exquisitely off-kilter and melodiously rapturous musical Into the Woods is given a sumptuously mounted and expertly acted production by Clarksville's Roxy Regional Theatre, delighting audiences with its view of what life is really like "happily ever after."

Some 20-plus years after its Broadway debut - and about 15 or more years since I last saw the musical's first production at The Roxy - Into the Woods retains its powerful storytelling technique, made all the more memorable by Sondheim's beautiful score, and presents a plethora of characters from childhood storybooks in a way that remains contemporary and compelling. With Tom Thayer's strong direction and artistic vision, this production soars, taking audiences along for an imaginative and creative journey.

Sondheim's lush and wondrous score, which so easily evokes the nature and scope of "fairytales," remains one of the musical theater's best-loved compositions. Act One's opening number is joyously hopeful, while "Hello, Little Girl" is deliciously ribald and disingenuously sexy, while "Agony" is melodramatic and amusingly droll. And the score's two big ballads, "No One Is Alone" and "Children Will Listen" are moving and emotional tributes to the human spirit, performed here with conviction by the talented players assembled onstage.

The characters in James Lapine's well-crafted book are all colorful and multi-dimensional, while he somehow retains the storybook attributes of each of them. Lapine's book provides the foundation from which Thayer's cast build their own individual - and unique - onstage versions.

As Cinderella, Kera Halbersleben captures her character's blend of ennui and unbridled hope with a thoroughly convincing performance that somehow blends comic pratfalls and dramatic tension. Her performance of "No One is Alone" is beautifully sung. Heather Stricker-Dispensa, as the Baker's Wife, creates a portrayal that is at once sentimental and no-nonsense, giving her line readings a deeper meaning while ensuring that her musical performances, particularly "Moments in the Woods" and "Children Will Listen" in the plays closing moments, are notable.

Sarah Levine is delightfully acerbic as Little Red Riding Hood, providing much of the evening's really big laughs. Rachael Fogle is completely convincing as the Witch, making her transformation to her younger, more beautiful self all the more successful onstage. Levine and Fogle are both strong vocalists, who give fresh voice to Sondheim's beautiful music.

But, truth be told, it is the men of the cast who really bowl you over with their superb voices and on-target acting choices. Although Ryan Bowie looks a bit young to play the Baker, he does so with a vigor and commitment that is admirable - and definte foreshadowing of what might be expected from him later in his career. He has a strong voice, and an even stronger stage presence, that breathes fire and life into his scriptbound character, and his duets with Stricker-Dispensa are genuinely heartfelt. Clearly, the Baker is the star of this production of Into the Woods.

Gregory Pember is sweetly naïve as Jack (of "...and the Beanstalk" fame) and as his character makes his own journey from slightly addle-brained child to world-weary and experienced young man, his performance remains pitch-perfect.

As the two handsome princes in the piece, both John Moser and Josh Bernaski are charming (as they most certainly should be) and confident, infusing their performances with great humor and a sense of melodramatic mirth and mayhem. Bernaski pulls double-duty as the Wolf (whose undoing comes at the hand of Little Red Riding Hood), zealously playing him with an over-the-top energy and a wry sense of abandon - and not a little bit of sex appeal.

The rest of the cast deliver performances on a par with the leading players, with particular attention paid to TEd Jones as The Narrator, Jackie Ostick as Jack's Mother and Hannah Church as Rapunzel. John McDonald and Humberto Figueroa are impressive in their brief moments onstage, and young Jaymin Burr very nearly steals the show with his performance as Jack's beloved cow, Milky-White.

Thayer's obvious and practiced skill is evident throughout (not the least of which is his unerring casting abilities) and his creative bent is underscored by the gorgeous physical trappings of the production, provided by a team of talented designers. Particularly impressive is the haunting and illuminating lighting design by Adam Kurtz, who further deserves accolades for his sound design which helps to define the time and place of the musical being played out onstage. The production's sets are wildly colorful and provide the ideal backdrop for the play's action, with credit given Kyra Bishop, Clare Coyle Taylor and The Roxy's team of summer interns. Costumes, designed by Leni Dyer and Meredith Gildrie, are a fanciful collection of fashions that clothe the disparate characters with personality-driven choices.

- Into the Woods. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by James Lapine. Directed and choreographed by Tom Thayer. At The Roxy Regional Theatre, Clarksville. Through August 28. For further details, visit the company website at www.roxyregionaltheatre.org; for reservations, call the theatre box office at (931) 645-7699.

Sarah Levine and Josh Bernaski in Into the Woods at Roxy Regional Theatre



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