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Review: Stephen Sondheim's INTO THE WOODS at the Marcia P. Hoffman School of the Arts at Ruth Eckerd Hall Is Filled with an Abundance of Heart and Soul

The Summer of Sondheim!

Review: Stephen Sondheim's INTO THE WOODS at the Marcia P. Hoffman School of the Arts at Ruth Eckerd Hall Is Filled with an Abundance of Heart and Soul

"Nice is different than good!" --Little Red Riding Hood

"What's the good of being good?" --Cinderella

Once upon a time, there was a show called INTO THE WOODS that's been performed so often that it always seems to sprout a new twist. I have seen a myriad of interpretations of the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine work over the course of my eight years of reviewing for Broadway World: One set in a psychiatrist office where Jack and Little Red are hypnotized; one with a family of narrators where the mother slowly dies of cancer in Act 2; one that leans toward steampunk; one set in a hospital with the doctors narrating the story; one that opens with the sound of a flushing toilet; and even one where the princes ride scooters instead of horses. Aside from Shakespeare's The Tempest set on a forbidden planet, I have not a seen a show so open to interpretation.

Which brings me to the latest INTO THE WOODS at the Marcia P. Hoffman School of the Arts at Ruth Eckerd Hall, their last entry in their highly successful "Summer of Sondheim" and a production that ended its run yesterday. Unlike those trying-to-be-different retellings of this musical, this group pretty much offers a straightforward, albeit presentational version of what is regarded as Sondheim's most popular work.

INTO THE WOODS is much deeper than you may think. It's not just about a group of fairytale characters thrown together with varying fates; it's actually a Freudian reinterpretation of the stories we grew up with--Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Rapunzel, etc. Two characters don't belong in this story, literally telling us this--a childless baker and his wife. They don't even sport names. Taunted by a haggard old witch, they must do various tasks in order to eventually spawn a child--travel into the woods to obtain Little Red's cape, Jack's cow, Cinderella's slipper, and a piece of yellow hair (like Rapunzel's). Act 1, which deals with the search and the characters' wishes coming true, is a blast, so much fun, a party of sorts where everything seems to end happily ever after. But then we get to Act 2, and the party's suddenly over and we realize that there's no such thing as "happily ever after."

If you ask audience members, they usually overwhelming prefer the good times of INTO THE WOODS' Act 1 over the solemnity and deaths in Act 2. I proudly stand in another camp: Yes, Act 1 is entertaining greatness, but Act 2 is even better, a meditative take on loss, both of life and of innocence. As I have often said before, Act 1 is Fairy Land, Act 2 is Sondheim Land. In Act 2, a giantess terrorizes the characters, and many of them lose their lives fighting her. In the 1980s, several viewers thought this was an allegory to the AIDS epidemic (something Sondheim would deny); seeing it today, it almost can seem to mirror the Covid pandemic. But it is actually about the towering loss of innocence, a dark take on growing up, featuring two of the greatest coming-of-age songs ever written: "I Know Things Now" and "Giants in the Sky." Even though children populate this production, it's a show that's not really for children.

And like in the recent production of Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George, the young actors of the Marcia P. Hoffman School of the Arts have done an amazing job with a very difficult and complex work.

The youthful cast is superlative, featuring some of the best talent from the far reaches of the Bay area.

Heading the list, standing out among standouts, is Lana Greene as the Witch. If you are looking for a young lady chock full of versatility, then this is your performer. I've seen her in other shows, always top-notched, but nothing could prepare us for her excellence here. Only a sophomore in high school, she is easily one of the area's finest young talents, with tremendous acting chops and goosebump-inducing vocals. Her witch's patter-rap in the opening is hard for anyone to tackle--vocal gymnastics so to speak--but seemed Sunday morning easy as the ultra-difficult Sondheim lyrics tripped off her tongue. And her "Last Midnight" was a complete thrill ride in and of itself.

The Baker (Jake Tottle) and his wife (Skyler Carlson) form the center of this story, and both of these young performers thoroughly own their roles, full of heart and heartache, comic highs and tragic lows. They sang marvelously and, best of all, they connected with each other, as showcased in their terrific duet, "It Takes Two." I love that they sang to each other and not out to the audience (even though they were not wearing microphones, we could still hear them quite well).

Mr. Tottle stands tall, taller than the majority of the cast, and as the Baker brought so much soul to the show; his heartbreak in Act 2 became our heartbreak. His "No More" devastated those watching so intensely that you could hear audience members sobbing during it. Astonishing work.

I remember seeing Ms. Carlson in Sunday in the Park with George earlier in the summer and as a guest-speller the night I saw The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee last year, but she has grown incredibly with this show. Its really her story-someone who doesn't belong, someone who not only doesn't have a name but is only referred to as "the Baker's wife." She loves her husband, but she yearns for something more, something unobtainable. This is reflected in Ms. Carlson's strong rendition of "Moment in the Woods," one of INTO THE WOODS' very best numbers. Truly ovation-worthy.

Kylee Black really came into her own in Act 2 as Cinderella; such a memorable presence, a strong-willed princess who wants to hang with the regular folk. In "No One Is Alone," perhaps the show's loveliest song, she hits some incredible notes. Speaking of incredible notes, Angelica Underwood also showcased her immense talents as the doomed Rapunzel.

Jack's cow, Milky White, is an adorable puppet guided by Danny Mahoney, who mimed chewing cud throughout the show. The puppet was almost attached to him like one of the conjoined twins in the book Very Special People. And his curmudgeonly moos worked wonderfully and even bit the Baker's fingers at one point. There's a moment when Jack sang goodbye to his pet cow ("I Guess This Is Goodbye"), and Milky White, the boy's best friend, put their head on his lap in a moment of sheer sweetness (sweet, that is, until Jack uttered, "I'll see you again soon/I hope that when I do/It won't be on a plate!")

As Little Red, Molly Fink performed quite well, especially with her song "I Know Things Now." She also got to let out a piercing scream that rung in my ear for several minutes afterwards. After the shriek, I overheard the person next to me say, " She should get an Academy Award for that scream!"

Steffen Robinson was delightful in a Red Skelton kind of way as the Mysterious Man, and in Act 2, his seriousness showcased a real actor, a performer with great range.

Sabrina Rossi made for a likable Jack, but I could barely hear them in the key number from the show, "Giants in the Sky." Colin Guergawi was a welcome presence onstage, but his Big Bad Wolf needed to be more menacing, more creepy and stalking, like a furry Humbert Humbert wanting to devour a young lady.

Donning brightly colored wigs, Cinderella's stepsisters and stepmother--Natalie Davis, Friday Tighe and Juliana Palmer--looked like lost witches from the movie Hocus Pocus. They were not just a hoot but a triple hoot. Katie Horton showed much promise as Jack's mom. Angelina Anderson was foreboding as the Giant, and Mckenzie Carlson was full of zest as Granny (though I wish she wore old age make-up). Elizabeth Gonzalez played a formidable Steward.

Alexander Gault was phenomenal as Rapunzel's Prince, like the weird synthesis of Jack Black, Chris Penn and Michael Madsen. He's a jolt of energy whenever he entered the stage. Equally strong was Jeffrey Walker as Cinderella's Prince, who played the arrogant lout with so much swag, swiveling his hips Elvis-like, so in love with himself. Both princes' duet in "Agony" and its reprise brought down the house. If you want to take a course in how to have outrageous fun during a song, then you should have seen this.

Storytellers and the ensemble did quite well, including Chayse Buchman, Austin Davis, Marion Franke, Sam Grace Trinidad, Safiya Hammond, Ethan Pumarejo, Makenzie Reinartsen, Ash, Smith-Higbee and Arianna Williams who has a wonderful voice as Cinderella's mother. Francesca LaSalle gets my shout out for Top Storyteller, especially with her entertainingly psychotic description of birds pecking out the Prince's eyes. (Some of the cast not in the performance I saw include Anna Harris, Sydnie Simons, and Jake Tomlinson.)

Director Jack Holloway, assisted by Chris Cavazza, guided the cast beautifully; it's a fast-moving two and a half hour roller coaster journey. Some directorial moments were pure genius, such as a carriage with open umbrellas as wheels and Monty Python clapping coconuts as horse hooves, or the cast members forming trees or Granny's bed. And the giantess of Act 2 is created by umbrellas as eyes and two ropes as a moving mouth; I've seen numerous versions of this show but nothing like this.

Scott Cooper's set, featuring giant storybooks that open up, is ingenious, even utilizing portions of the set from Sunday in the Park with George. Yohance Wicks' music direction is spot on, even though I couldn't always hear the performers. His musicians were tights and were the driving force of the show: Kyle Collins, Tristan Goodrich, David Pate and Joan Prokopowicz. Kelli Hall's choreography suited the show, getting all those kids of varying abilities on that stage and moving in tandem. Mary Kraack's costumes are quite creative, and Betty-Jane Parks' Milky White puppet design was positively inspired.

There are quibbles. Some cast members, including some of the storytellers, could not be heard or understood at all (if you didn't know the show, you could be quite lost). Some of Sondheim's labyrinthian lyrics were hard to enunciate, especially for those young voices. There were some missed opportunities tech-wise, including some kind of lighting change that was certainly missing when the beanstalk grows and crashes. And the golden-egg-laying hen drawing that Jack clutched, which resembled something discarded in an elementary school art class, left much to be desired.

At one point during Act 2 of the show, a live cockroach took its time as it traveled from stage left to stage right. The audience delighted in watching its journey, focusing on it rather than some of the action of the stage around it. I immediately thought that the addition of a live roach made sense--the only survivors of an Apocalypse or a warring Giant would be the cockroaches. It also underscores that the powers that be at Ruth Eckerd Hall need to call the Orkin Man as soon as possible.

But this show belongs to the young cast, who told this powerful story and told it so well. It gives you hope for the future. And some of these talented young folk will clearly go onto great things, whether on the stage or not. Will they live "happily ever after"? That's up to them, if such a thing even exists. But if any group has a shot at living Happily Ever After, it's these talented kids who made a show I've seen quite often seem entirely fresh and new. Bravo!

From This Author - Peter Nason

    An actor, director, and theatre teacher, Peter Nason fell in love with the theatre at the tender age of six when he saw Mickey Rooney in “George M!” at the Shady Grove in ... (read more about this author)

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