Although I have been posting notices about InterACT Theatre Productions for over two years, I had never gotten around to review any of them until this weekend, when I went to see Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's off-beat musical version of some of our best-loved fairy tales entitled, appropriately, Into the Woods at the Baird Theatre in South Orange. I should have gone sooner.
In the very small black box theater on the third floor of the Baird Center (there's an elevator for those who don't want to take the stairs), this troupe of talented actors and production crew transport us to the fantastical world of the Brothers Grimm. Reminding us that the tales recounted by the Brothers Grimm are based on very dark, often violent, malevolent folk tales, Sondheim explores what happens after “they lived happily ever after,” and the picture he paints isn’t necessarily pretty.
For starters, the set design by director Nicholas Clarey and Olivia Robbins is ingenious. The stage, the floor, even the railings of the audience sections have been draped in white canvas, painted with words, phrases and whole sentences from the tales themselves in black. Characters pop out from behind these panels, which slide back and forth on drapery channels, often appearing at the top of trees and towers when we least expect them. Purposefully, nothing is realistic, reinforcing the feeling that we have been caught in a fairy tale—indeed, along with the characters, we have gone "into the woods" which are scary, dark and deep.
The story of the baker and his wife, childless as the result of a curse placed on his family by a witch for his father’s having stolen beans from her garden, forms the centerpiece of the play. To lift the curse, the baker must get a cow white as milk ("Jack and the Beanstalk"), a cape red as blood ("Little Red Riding Hood"), hair yellow as corn ("Rapunzel") and a slipper pure as gold ("Cinderella"), thus bringing other stories to the mix. In fact, each story gets its own turn, only to come together in the second act to fight the Giant's avenging wife who has come seeking revenge (Jack's hide, that is) for her husband's untimely death. At this point, the storybook characters come together to protect one of their own after coming to the conclusion that "No One Is Alone," the poignant penultimate musical number in what has been a long, strange journey.
The 23 actors uniformly manage Sondheim's complex melodies and rhythms very well, and under the steady hand of Director Clarey, the action moves along at a good clip. This is important because the first act has 16 musical numbers, while the second act has only nine; the play's running time is by that standard quite long. Paul David Morin and Jess Emerson (in photo to right), as the Baker and his wife, respectively, are onstage for most of the time as their story knits the others together. Both possess great stage presence and voices, and are charming in the duet where they realize that "It Takes Two" to find the ingredients to lift the witch's curse as well as to make a family they so long for.
As that Witch, Staci Morin (left, with Emily Strigl as Rapunzel) is malevolent and beautiful—always a dangerous combination—and she hauntingly warbles the show's key song, “Children Will Listen” (here called “The Witch’s Lament”). She is hilarious as the overprotective mother of Rapunzel, here played with great trill-ability by Emily Strigl, whom she tries to protect from the evils of the world outside (she should know what they are!) by locking her up in a tower. Sound familiar, parents?
The princes, played with great élan by Erik Gaden (Cinderella's Prince) and Patrick Cullins (Rapunzel's Prince), cavort around the stage in a stylized fashion as they bemoan the "Agony" of being royal. They provide great fun to what could be a dark work. The latter is also a very smarmy Wolf in the Red Riding Hood story. Ted Cancilla pops up from time to time as a Mysterious Man (and as a drunken Cinderella's father) to add more levity to the proceedings.
Other standouts include Kate Pfuhler as Cinderella and Julie Funesti as Red Riding Hood. Both possess lovely, strong singing voices and attract our undivided attention whenever they appear onstage. Austin Brecht is a doofus of a Jack, who sells his cow Milky White (Holly Lehren) for a handful of beans; Kate Soriano is fine as his exasperated mother. Debbie Zika as Cinderella's stepmother and Sabrina Santoro and Heidi Hart as the two wicked stepsisters are outrageously nasty—and funny. Lawrence Dandridge provides further fun as the swish Steward to Cinderella's Prince; loved the sparkly make-up. And Kate Florio provides extra malevolence as the Giant's Wife, with her booming voice threatening the fairy tale characters if they don't give up Jack. (Above L-R: Lawrence Dandridge, Ted Cancilla, Debbie Zika , Julie Funesti, Paul Morin, Heidi Hart, Sabrina Santoro, Staci Morin, Jess Emerson, Kate Florio; center, Kate Soriano. Photos by Marilyn Lehren)
Holland J. Jancaitis and Chris Titko on keyboards supply terrific musical support for the singers; we don't even miss the sound of a band or orchestra. Zach Pizza' lighting focuses on each performer as he or she moves around the stage, and costumes by Meg Gilbert and Kate Soriano have the quality of illustrations in a children's picture book—mostly black and white in the beginning with some dashes of color added toward the end.
Sondheim and Lapine have taken the familiar storybook endings and stood them on their figurative heads. Of course, going into the woods—a dark and scary place—is a metaphor for the journey through life each of us must take. And if sometimes things don’t work out “happily ever after,” we can deal with them by working together. While it may be too scary for little ones, Into the Woods will resonate with pre-teens and teenagers currently embarking on that scary, wonderful journey.
A further note: This may be considered "community theater," but a glance at the biographies of the actors reveals that all have had musical training and have appeared in plays in school, college and on other local stages. They may not be professional Actors Equity members, but they are a good cut above the community members who often turn up to audition for such shows. Bravo, InterACT for a fine cast.
Into the Woods will be performed Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 PM and Sundays at 4 PM through May 18. The Baird Center Theatre is located at 5 Mead Place in South Orange. For information and tickets, click here to purchase tickets online or click here for more information.
P.S. You might want to bring a pillow to sit on; the theater’s chairs are hard.