BWW Review: Pitch Perfect INTO THE WOODS Dazzles at Centre Stage
Once upon a time a fairy tale came to life in front of me.
More than just a classic fairy tale, this was many fairy tales, combined into a beautiful, complex whole. A story not only of magic and mayhem and how handsome princes win beautiful brides, but also a look at what happens after happily ever after.
Centre Stage's new production of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods features terrific performances from an enormously talented cast and wonderfully detailed set, light, costume, and sound designs that combine for an ideal interpretation of a musical theatre classic.
Luke Browder and Paige ManWaring star as a Baker and his Wife whose one wish is to conceive a child. Alas, a witch (Taylor Marlatt) cursed the couple and will only relent if they perform a quest for her. Embarking on the quest they cross paths with Cinderella (Beth Martin), Jack (Brady Coyle-Smith) of beanstalk fame, Rapunzel (Kate Riedy), and Little Red Riding Hood (Bethany Mansfield). Throw in a wolf, a cow, a couple of handsome princes, and a very mysterious man (Rod McClendon), and you've got a recipe for a magically good time.
Director Chris Rose, in his program notes, talks about the idea of characters trying to be the best and fullest versions of themselves. By emphasizing that idea, Rose has managed to create the best and fullest version of Into the Woods I've ever seen. It's funny and light and musically enchanting while also retaining all the hints and undertones of darkness so central to Sondheim's best work. Whether it's Sweeney Todd or Merrily We Roll Along or Sunday in the Park with George, Sondheim creates characters who wrestle with their own place in the world, with their own identities and motives and perspectives. Characters who make difficult choices and then have to live with the results. For Into the Woods, that duality is baked into the very structure of the show. It's equal parts tragedy and farce.
Luke Browder shines as the sincere and sometimes clueless Baker. He's got a warm voice and grounded presence that perfectly suit the character. He also has a winning chemistry with Paige ManWaring as his long suffering Wife. Whether they're working together or working at odds, they make a great focal point. ManWaring deftly handles the comedy and sincerity - and confusion - of the Wife working through and wrestling with her own desires. She's especially moving during her climactic "Moments in the Woods."
Beth Martin has a pitch perfect Disney Princess voice as Cinderella along with a kind demeanor that makes her a natural to befriend birds. But there's also a mischievousness and even exasperation beneath that exterior - all these characters have layers - and Martin utterly won me over on all counts.
Similarly, Brady Coyle-Smith makes a terrific Jack, both youthful and full-voiced, with a dynamic energy that endearingly lapses, at times, into outright oblivious goofiness. But he's also ambitious and emotional and has gorgeous chemistry with the cow (artfully performed by Matthew Quattlebaum) and his mother (a feisty Arleen Black).
Bethany Mansfield is another standout as Little Red Riding Hood. She's brusque and funny and brings a wonderful physicality to the role. Rod McClendon, too, uses his physical presence to great effect both as the Narrator and as the Mysterious Stranger. And speaking of physicality, one of the greatest joys of this production, for me, came from the two Princes - Cory Simmons and Sterling Street. They are both almost cartoonishly handsome and, well, prince-ly, and their rendition of the classic "Agony" was absolutely hysterical. I walked out of the theatre wanting to mirror Street's hilariously overheroic way of walking and carrying himself.
The rest of the story is filled in with other familiar characters. Victoria Bess Adams, Mary Evan Giles, and Sarah Greene are appropriately stuck up as Cinderella's step-mother and step-sisters - they especially shine in a particularly cringe-worthy scene in act two. Also funny was Maurice Reed as Cinderella's out-of-touch Father and Kate Riedy as the vacuous Rapunzel, who lets down her hair again and again to a lovely and ultimately grating tune.
Perhaps my favorite performance, though, came from Taylor Marlatt as the Witch. This is a classic role, famously originated by the legendary Bernadette Peters and played on film by Meryl Streep. But Marlatt steps right in and makes the part her own, physically and vocally. And when her true face is revealed (sorry, spoiler alert) we get to revel in Marlatt's subtle expressions and glorious voice.
"In a great musical," legendary composer Richard Rodgers once wrote, "the orchestrations sound the way the costumes look. That's that made Oklahoma work - all the components dovetailed." And that's exactly what makes this production of Into the Woods so memorable. Everything is of a piece, everything clicks, starting with the performances and all the way to Clint Walker's set, Mary Evan Giles' choreography, Thom Seymour's lights, Matthew Polowzuck's sound, Stacey Hawks' costumes, and Victor DeLeon's hair and makeup. Everything come together to make a glorious whole.
As with many a fairy tale, one of the more surface lessons of Into the Woods is this - be careful what you wish for. Thankfully, you couldn't wish for a better way to learn this lesson.
Into the Woods runs through April 7 at Centre Stage in Greenville, SC. For tickets and showtimes, please call the box office at 864.233.6733 or visit centrestage.org.