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Review: Sondheim's INTO THE WOODS is Wowing Audiences at Palm Canyon Theatre.

This excellent production will run for one more weekend.

Review: Sondheim's INTO THE WOODS is Wowing Audiences at Palm Canyon Theatre.
The bakers (Francesca Amari and David Brooks)
listen to their frightening neighbor (Se Layne).

Palm Canyon Theatre (PCT) deserves kudos for the fine singing, acting, dancing, and technical achievements in its production of Stephen Sondheim's INTO THE WOODS - the audience was highly enthusiastic the night I attended, for good reason.

My heretical reservations solely concern the score and story; I admire Sondheim but dislike his more dissonant compositions, of which INTO THE WOODS contains several. I also do not like the musical's book (by James Lapine), although Sondheim's lyrics are, as usual, brilliant. For those unfamiliar with the show, the story knits together Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Rapunzel through a husband-and-wife pair of bakers, whom a witch has cursed with infertility. The story asks what happens after happily ever after. Act I is cheerful, and I'd prefer to see the show end there. Act II, in contrast, tells a dark, dark tale, with a truly tragic event that happens early, leaving the audience to process the sadness while the show continues. The only time I have left a performance of INTO THE WOODS having fully enjoyed myself is when one company played it for humor.

INTO THE WOODS garnered three 1988 Tony awards, including for best book and best score; it might have won more, except that it had the misfortune of competing against THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. The score is chromatic, which makes most of the arias, excuse me, songs, challenging to listen to as well as sing, and the female parts are high. Nevertheless, the musical is popular with community theatres, despite the need to have more than one accomplished, operatic soprano in the company.

Review: Sondheim's INTO THE WOODS is Wowing Audiences at Palm Canyon Theatre.
Jack (Anthony Nannini) doesn't want to sell his
cow to the baker's wife.

Director Derik Shopinski, who also choreographed this production, has chosen to let his talented cast have their individual moments in the spotlight. The leads and featured performers own the stage during their vocal solos. The women, Francesca Amari, as the baker's wife; Leslie Benjamin, as Little Red Riding Hood; Laura Bloom Farber, as Jack's mother; Nikki Hock, as Rapunzel and as Cinderella's mother; Se Layne, as the witch; and Ana Rangel, as Cinderella, have contrasting voices, despite most of them being sopranos. They exude charisma as they sing and dance around the stage.

The male performers are equally accomplished. David Brooks, as the baker, is older than most men desperate for their wives to conceive their first child, but he makes up for the age disconnect with his vocal talent. Ben Reece, dually cast as the wolf and as Cinderella's prince, and Dr. Eric Stein-Steele, as Rapunzel's prince, both of whom have professional backgrounds, wow the audience during the "Agony" numbers. The multi-talented Anthony Nannini, who can sing, act, dance, direct, and choreograph, is fabulous as the good-hearted but dim-witted Jack, of beanstalk fame. Last, but certainly not least, Kam Sisco is a delight as the Mysterious Man.

Review: Sondheim's INTO THE WOODS is Wowing Audiences at Palm Canyon Theatre.
The wolf (Ben Reece) tries to charm Little Red Riding Hood
(Leslie Benjamin).

Among the ensemble and all-speaking parts, Stan Jenson, my Broadway World colleague, takes perfect advantage of his resonant bass voice as the narrator. Linda Cooke is a hoot as the granny who encounters the wolf and winds up none the worse for the experience. Terry Huber, as the king's steward, continues his tradition of playing snobs with aplomb. The rest of the company is also terrific. They consist of Alan Berry, Morgana Corelli, Cameron Keys, Isa Morrison, Denise Strand, Ava Tethal, and Sanai Wright. (Brandy Valentine will replace Ava Tethal from May 20 through 22nd). As usual, PCT employs a fabulous live combo: Steven Smith (musical director), on the piano; David Bronson, on drums; and Larry Holloway, on bass. Live music adds significant enjoyment to a show, at least for me.

The technical aspects of the production are also wonderful - especially the visuals. Dr. William Layne's and J.W. Layne's opening scenery is warm and haimish, but when the action graduates to the woods, the twisty, spooky trees draw the audience into the increasing danger. The costumes (designed by Derik Shopinski, assisted by Virginia Sulick, Colleen Walker, and Kathryn Ferguson) are perfect for a fairy tale. I especially liked the over-the-top military uniforms on the two princes. I also cannot gush enough about the quality of the make-up crew (Sandra Ibanez, Nayeli Lopez, Babesey Morrison, and Anika Sanchez). The wolf, witch, and mysterious man are terrifying. And the glamour make-up is worthy of any Hollywood expert.

The rest of the technical designers and crew consist of assistant stage managers AJ Fernandez and Matilda Moss; lighting designer J.W. Layne, assisted by Kay Van Zandt; set construction, Neil Kapple and Nick Edwards (the latter of whom is also in charge of the projections and props); and Nick Campbell (sound design).

I have a few minor quibbles: Here and there, a soprano screeched a bit on high notes. Also, the sound effects and lighting seemed slightly out of sync with the dialog and action - problems that I expect will be cleared up before next weekend. In any event, they are not major enough to spoil the show.

Review: Sondheim's INTO THE WOODS is Wowing Audiences at Palm Canyon Theatre.
Frightened villagers and royals listen to the former witch.

INTO THE WOODS will run through May 22nd, at the Palm Canyon Theatre, with performances Thursdays at 7 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Ticket prices are $36 for most adults, $32 for those over 60 years of age, and $15 for students and children. The theater is located at 538 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs, CA 92262, between N. Palm Canyon Drive and Indian Canyon Drive, on the north side of E. Alejo Road.

The Sunday, May 22nd show will feature ASL interpretation.

PCT's last show of the season is GODSPELL, which will run from July 8-17, 2022.

Photo Credit: Paul Hayashi

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