Sunday, September 28, 2014

Into the Woods Murky Yet Powerful

by Genevieve Heinrich
Photos by Shannon Struttmann

Janelle Steichen as the Baker's Wife
Cedar Rapids - Fairy tales are more than just the cornerstone of Theatre Cedar Rapids 81st season. They are, perhaps, the cornerstone of Western society. There's no flippancy in my statement... much of what we learn as children, during our peak formative years, comes from the lessons taught in these perennial bedtime stories.

At least, it used to.

Into the Woods is composer Stephen Sondheim's exploration of where we went wrong. He asked the question - familiar to us now, but just beginning to burst into the world's consciousness in the mid-1980s, when this was written - "What happens next?" The Disney-fied, sanitized happily ever after was no longer enough, and Sondheim joined the ranks of contemporary authors like Charles de Lint and Jane Yolen in insisting that these characters were (and always had been) more than just archetypes. With James Lapine (who wrote the book) he delves into the realities of these characters' lives, and pursues the ways that the same ambitions that got them what they wanted continued to affect their lives.

Theatre Cedar Rapids has assembled a formidable crew to tackle this ambitious musical. The set for this show (Scenic Designer: Bret Goethe; Scenic Artist: Daniel Kelchen) was a true stand-out. It's beauty was nothing short of magical, between the colors and the few simple but highly effective moving elements and above all else, the moon. Also contributing to the stunning visual effects were (with a few minor exceptions) the costumes, by Joni Sackett.

The individual actors in this production were, for the most part, fantastic. There were some lovely moments between them in pairs. However, when more than just a couple of actors were on stage at a time, focus became muddy and the action tended to stall. When large crowds were on stage, quite a lot of clarity was lost. The more intimate scenework, though, was beautiful. This is a show filled with wonderful pieces, but it just doesn't coalesce. This is especially true in the second act, where the higher stakes inherent in the story don't seem to be reflected in any but a few of the performances. The actors - the production itself, in fact - seem taken aback by the sudden seriousness and sincerity. Things like the disturbingly humorous squishing sounds that accompany character deaths seem over-the-top and out of place. There seems to be a fear of losing the audience that results in a lack of engagement with the material.

Becca Hauschild as Cinderella
Vocally, this show is quite strong. We are lucky, here in the Corridor, to have an abundance of the sort of vocal talent necessary to do battle with a Sondheim score, and to have a musical director of the caliber of Janelle Lauer (assisted by Ben Schmidt) to serve as a guide. The music is very challenging, and there were some phenomenal singers here accomplishing great feats. Aside from a bit of drag on some of the faster numbers and large group songs, the execution was impressive. However, unfortunately, there were many moments where actors seemed to be concentrating very hard on making sure they were vocally accurate, and in the process, losing important aspects of character and engagement.

Notable exceptions to this include Becca Hauschild as Cinderella and K. Michael Moore and Janelle Steichen as the Baker and his Wife. These actors were astute and nimble scene partners, whether speaking or singing; the scenes between Cinderella and the Baker's Wife, especially, were startlingly fun and engaging. These performers never failed to remain fully immersed in their world and their stories, even while navigating Sondheim's intricate music. Cinderella's Prince and Rapunzel's Prince (Dustin Davis and John Zbanek Hill, respectively) were also quite good at this aspect of the show. Their duets, "Agony" and "Agony Reprise," were highlights of the show - both tender and funny, and always character-driven.

This show is filled with necessary storytelling, much of it in song, and anyone who cannot wrap the audience around his little finger will get lost in the shuffle. Storytelling is a skill very closely related to - but not the same as - acting, and some of the performers did not interact with that distinction. Unfortunately, that was the case with the Narrator (Steve Arnold, who was quite fun as the Mysterious Man). He never quite seemed to capture the magic of weaving the story, which perhaps contributed to the lack of overall cohesion.

Special mention must be given to Lydia Jennissen as Milky White the cow. With not a word to say in response, she and Jack (Kyle Shedeck) were able to establish a beautiful friendship. Her physical work inside the bulky (and adorable!) costume was fantastic. Milky White may be in the background when she dances, but she steals the scene. Jennissen gives us a cow filled with pathos, passion, and hilarity.

Lydia Jennissen, Kyle Shedeck, K. Michael Moore, Janelle Steichen

Overall, this production of Into the Woods is well worth seeing. There are some amazing and heartfelt performances. Sondheim took the warped, 20th century misunderstanding of fairy tales and spun a truer reflection of their original purpose. This production does an admirable job of reflecting that vision, of building these characters into something honest and real. The show runs on Theatre Cedar Rapids' mainstage through October 18. More information here.

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