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Review: INTO THE WOODS at 5th Avenue Theatre

Review: INTO THE WOODS at 5th Avenue Theatre

The production runs now through March 5th.

INTO THE WOODS at 5th Avenue Theatre is loaded with surprises and modern flair. From floor to ceiling and head to toe, this production gives a new look to this timeless fairytale. With humor and heart leading the way, INTO THE WOODS provides a night of intricate storytelling. Whether it is your first or fiftieth time to see this Sondheim masterpiece, you will leave knowing that wishes do come true, and even when they don't, you are not alone.

INTO THE WOODS is the story of a blended fairytale, including characters from different stories such as Cinderella, Jack (from beanstalk fame), Prince Charming, Rapunzel, a Witch, and Little Red Riding Hood among others. The story begins with various characters revealing their deepest desires in the form of a wish. One of the wishes comes from the Baker and his wife who desperately want a child. They learn that their wish is blocked by a curse from the neighboring witch. Fortunately, the witch gives them a task that will undo the curse. They must collect the necessary ingredients for a potion which will break the curse. They head into the woods in search of the needed items. Along the way they encounter the others who are also in pursuit of their wishes and having struggles of their own. When wishes don't bring the contentment they had hoped for, they must band together to fight a common enemy. It is through new relationships that they find the true thing they were searching for - connection.

The strength of the show is firmly grounded in several outstanding performances that embody the traditions of their characters while bringing new attitudes and occasionally some new laughs. Opening night saw Casey Raiha step in as Cinderella's Prince and the Wolf. With the exception of the program listing him as an understudy, it would have been impossible to tell. He is as sure-footed and exuberant as anyone else on stage. Mari Nelson as the Narrator made what is often a forgotten part a highlight of the show. With equal use of humor and gravitas, she steers the show with delightful ease. Sarah Russell's portrayal of Cinderella is more charming than the prince. With vocals that float effortlessly and a smile that beguiles, she wins the hearts of everyone in her purview. Antonio Mitchell as Rapunzel's Prince brings the swagger. Sarah Garcia as Little Red is simply delightful, full of spunk and not the one note we often see. She uses Red's incorrigible tendency to say what everyone else is thinking in a way that becomes a moral guidepost. Her confidence has shades of naivety and reveal the inner little girl attempting to navigate the dangers of the woods.

Shanelle Nicole Leonard, Trina Mills, and Shaunyce Omar as Lucinda, Florinda, and Cinderella's stepmother were a power trio. They flaunted and scuffled and primped and fawned and brought levity whenever they stepped on stage. Porsche Shaw as the Witch was beguiling. While her reveal was dazzling and she rocked that yellow dress, I was completely smitten with her bedraggled Act I Witch persona. She finds pockets of humor and new jokes in places that are usually dry. Eric Ankrim and Cayman Ilika as the Baker and Baker's Wife bring interest to their individual characters but never quite make the connection as a couple. Their bickering seems real enough but is missing the underlying tenderness that should drive them back together. Shermona Mitchell as Jack's Mother brings an authenticity that any mother will recognize. Her unscripted grunts and groans encapsulate the worry and frustrations of motherhood.

The artistic team's modern take on INTO THE WOODS was a strange mix of highs and lows. The complete absence of realistic trees (nary a leaf makes an appearance on stage) was not the trainwreck I expected. Scenic design by Lex Marcos and Lighting design by Ben Zamora create a complex "woods" of scaffolding and metaphoric trees with hanging neon bars. The ability to change the mood and feel instantly by changing the color of the "trees" was an added benefit. However, the scaffolding did not provide the sort of playfulness that can happen with trees large enough to hide behind. I wish the scaffolding had been used more or differently as it seemed often to be a one note obstacle rather than a labyrinth of possibilities. The costuming by Melanie Taylor Burgess ran the gamut of smashingly awesome to peculiarly lackluster. The modern take on the step sisters and step mother could not have been more fabulous. The looks accentuated the characters and told a story of their own. The Baker's Wife, however, didn't even seem to be in costume. It was disappointing and even made this main character seem less important. And I have no idea what the motivation was for the Steward's costume as it was neither traditional nor modern. Direction by Bill Berry was also a bit of a mix with many moments of genius speckled with head-scratchingly confusing choices. INTO THE WOODS is already a long show, but time and again the orchestra was held waiting for a scene to finish before they could continue. But the interplay between details in the music and the actors on stage was outstanding. The timing and punctuations were executed flawlessly. The music from the pit was perhaps the best tribute to Sondheim of the night. His music is intricate and difficult but was performed with gusto and ease and just a touch of magic.

INTO THE WOODS at 5th Avenue Theatre brings us a fresh take on an old classic. With a modern twist on woods, and contemporary flair in costumes, the show pushes the expected while staying true to the story. With strong performances by 5th Avenue regulars and newcomers alike, INTO THE WOODS reveals why it will always be a classic. Though many elements left me feeling much like Jack's Mother, "I wish a lot of things," ultimately, it was an experience worth having. Theater should never be stuck in the past and afraid to try new things, and the 5th Avenue Theatre flexes their artistic muscles and bravely puts their own new spin on INTO THE WOODS.

Photo Credit: Mark Kitaoka

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