INTO THE WOODS
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BWW Reviews: INTO THE WOODS a Fairy-Tale Ending to OSTC's 2014-15 Season

BWW Reviews: INTO THE WOODS a Fairy-Tale Ending to OSTC's 2014-15 Season

Ocean State Theatre Company closes out its third full season in Warwick with Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's beloved fable Into the Woods. This tale of "once upon a time" imagines the most famous names in fairy tale literature living life together in the same enchanted land. Here, Cinderella's home is found near to Jack's (of beanstalk fame) modest abode, and Little Red Riding Hood rubs shoulders with Rapunzel on her way to Granny's house.

At the center of the action is an original story, that of a humble Baker and his Wife who have been cursed into childlessness by a neighboring Witch. To break the spell, the sorceress sends the duo on a magical scavenger hunt. During this quest, the couple encounters Jack and his cow, Little Red and the Wolf, Cinderella and her Prince, and the sheltered Rapunzel high up in her solitary tower. It's soon apparent that there are no chance meetings among these enchanted folk. Each of their actions and decisions impacts the others' fates, and stories are intertwined with amusing, sometimes heartbreaking results.

For all of its fantasy elements and storybook setting, Into the Woods is not a run-of-the-mill children's show. In fact, this is a decidedly grown-up musical with unexpectedly deep messages about moral ambiguity and the implications of its characters' actions, the true costs of obtaining wishes through magic, and the lasting consequences of every choice made in the enchanted forest. The first act traces the familiar tales of giants and fairy godmothers as the characters live out the stories that make them household names; the second act deals with the realities of life after "happily ever after."

The tales unfold with plenty of wit and humor - often cunningly dark humor - and musical numbers are laced with wordplay that is spirited, self-referential, and substantive. Into the Woods does not shy away from the grimmer, even gruesome aspects of early fairy stories (especially in Cinderella and Rapunzel), and these are played simultaneously for comedy and tragedy. There are no "throw-away" lines in Into the Woods as song lyrics and lines of dialogue are carefully crafted to have notable secondary meanings.

OSTC's staging is a solid production with a strong cast and admirable production values, though it occasionally lacks a spark of magic. On opening night, part of that disconnect stemmed from technical difficulties with microphones cutting in and out throughout performance. This was most noticeable in scenes with Cinderella's Prince and Rapunzel's Prince, unfortunately interfering with their hammy renditions of "Agony" and its reprise. Those who know Into the Woods well anticipate the punchlines, but with spotty audio in both acts, some the princes' funniest lines received only tepid reaction, making it clear that half the room missed the joke.

Overall, however, Ocean State's Into the Woods is a thoroughly enjoyable production. Once again, the company assembled an excellent cast and crafted first-rate stage effects. Chief among the standout performers are Erika Amato as the Witch and Sarah Pothier as Cinderella. Amato commands the audience from the first moment she appears on stage - impressively, even when her facial expressions are shrouded by the Witch's cloak and heavy makeup - and musically she excels in each and every number. She deftly executes the Witch's tongue-twisting, exposition-laden prologue patter song, she infuses "Stay with Me" and "Lament" with heartrending grief, and her edgy "Last Midnight" is chillingly foreboding.

Pothier, who gave a memorable performance in the company's 2014 production of Meet Me in St. Louis, once again shines in the OSTC spotlight. Her multi-faceted portrayal allows for Cinderella to show real depth from curtain to curtain. Pothier skillfully expresses Cinderella's sadness and frustration at home, her still-deep grief over her mother's death, her uncertainty after meeting the prince, her joy at finding her happily ever after, and her resiliency when "ever after" falls apart. In addition, Pothier has a gorgeous singing voice with lovely range and expression. She delivers a chuckle-inducing, pitch-perfect rendition of "On the Steps of the Palace," and her heartfelt interpretation of "No One is Alone" doesn't leave a dry eye in the house.

Tommy Labanaris and Amanda Ryan Paige, as the Baker and his Wife, are at the heart of Into the Woods. The narrative centers on this partnership - sometimes contentious, always loving - and on how the couple's experiences in the woods shape their marriage. These performers work wonderfully together to portray a relationship that rings true, warts and all, and that makes their characters' actions and outcomes all-the-more emotionally impactful to an audience. Paige has some of the best comedic lines in the show and she makes the Baker's Wife endearingly outspoken without ever appearing shrewish. The Baker experiences the most amount of growth in Into the Woods, and as the story unfolds, Labanaris does a stand-out job of bringing his character from hesitation and uncertainty through to guilt and loss, leadership, and then on to hopeful resilience.

Brian Horton's costumes, as usual, are creations ideally fitting for their characters. From the tattered, threadbare attire worn by the impoverished Jack and his mother to the ravenous Wolf's furry features swathed in his dapper tail coat, the garments on stage visually reinforce the storytelling in each scene. Of special note are Cinderella' s dazzling ball gown, Rapunzel and the Witch's beautifully wrought robes, and the gathered sleeves and lovely embroidery on the Baker's Wife's dress. Clifton Chadick's whimsical props and sets are straight out of storybook illustration - Cinderella's bird friends are crafted with a special note of humor - and David A. Sexton's lighting truly appears as waning moonlight filtering down through the treetops. Lighting effects on the moon itself are wonderfully used to enhance character, such as the blood red hue employed during the Wolf's threatening lyrics in "Hello, Little Girl."

Performances of Into the Woods run through May 23, 2015 at the Ocean State Theatre. A post-show discussion will follow the matinee performance on Sunday, May 3. Tickets range from $39-54 and can be purchased online at www.OceanStateTheatre.org, by phone (401) 921-6800, or at the OSTC box office, 1245 Jefferson Blvd., Warwick, RI. Rush tickets are available. Call (401) 921-1777 x112 for information on group discounts.

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Photo by Mark Turek

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