Monday, April 27, 2015

A Review of Into the Woods

photo by Jackie Blake Jensen Photography
by Sharon Falduto  

Iowa City - Stephen Sondheim’s 1986 musical Into the Woods has cast a powerful spell on audiences for nearly 30 years and is always popular in revival, which is why the corridor was able to support two performances of the show in the same season that Disney released a movie.

My 11 year old daughter sold Girl Scout cookies to the cast of City Circle Acting Company of Coralville’s Into the Woods when they were still rehearsing in their street clothes. Without the benefit of props, costumes, or set, she stood enthralled as the actors dug into the prologue of the piece. Naturally, she was my accompaniment for the premiere of the show on April 24, 2015.

The show interweaves and overlaps several Grimm fairy tales. We see Cinderella, longing to go to the King’s Festival but hindered by her wicked stepmother and stepsisters. Jack, of future Beanstalk fame, and his mother are in desperate need of food, and his mother demands that he sell his pet cow, Milky White. Little Red Riding Hood is off to visit her Granny, but runs into some trouble along the way. A childless Baker and his Wife long for the child who does not come. A wicked witch explains that she has cast a spell on the Baker’s family that his household will always be barren (which, if you think about it, is a pretty short-sighted spell). The only way to overcome the spell is for the Baker to retrieve four objects; “the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold.”

The characters set off into the woods to fulfill their wishes and to find their destinies.

The Baker and his Wife, Patrick Du Laney and Carrie Houchins-Witt, are the emotional heart of the show. Their marriage feels real; their chemistry true to the characters, obviously in love with each other but care-worn by the lack of the child they both so desperately want. They treat each other with respect and humor, which comes across in small gestures and exchanged glances.

photo by Jackie Blake Jensen Photography
Jack, Hank Welter, is the young heroic giant slayer of the group—the boy who grows into a man after being forced to sell his beloved cow. His mother, Rebecca Ogilvie, worries for his future—she fears her son is touched (“who has a cow for a best friend?”). You can see her love for her son, but her exasperation with him as well.

Elijah Jones as Milky White had no lines at all, but he was really committed to being a cow. Even in the choreography he managed a bovine lilt, and he someone managed to make even his eyes seem cow-like.

Victoria Vaughn’s Cinderella was vague—she knew she wanted something, although she didn’t quite know what it was. Vaughn eloquently inhabited the role of the young girl on the cusp of deciding what she wants. She knows she doesn’t want to live with her step-mother, Robyn Calhoun, and step-sisters, Hannah Green and Hannah Loeb; however, she doesn’t seem to want to be tied down with a prince, either.

The princes who pine for Cinderella and for Rapunzel provided the comic relief of the show, singing about their “Agony” in pursuing these elusive women. Rob Keech and Rob Kemp were both hilarious as they try to upstage each other throughout their duets, and then dash off in strides clearly cribbed from the Ministry of Silly Walks.

photo by Jackie Blake Jensen Photography
Lindsay Raasch as Little Red played the line between innocent girl and young woman extremely well—straying from the path, then returning quickly when she remembers her mother’s warning words. After her encounter with the Wolf at her granny’s house, her edges grow harder and she grows sharper, clearly having undergone a transformation. And let’s talk about that wolf. As we all know, there are the stories that fairy tales tell—“little girl gets eaten by wolf,” and then there is the thing the fairy tale is really about—“little girl discovers boys.” Felipe Carrasco as the Wolf oozed lupine sexuality as he sang a song about eating the little girl, which wasn’t, of course, really about eating the little girl.

Unfortunately the relationship, and two characters, who never quite grabbed my heart were the Witch (Kristen Behrendt DeGrazia) and Rapunzel (Maya Bassuk). Rapunzel was a lovely singer, but I didn’t feel her intense desire to escape the tower. And the Witch, though a very skilled singer who was able to blow through Sondehim’s complicated score with ease, seemed to be more of a singer than an actor.

Christopher Okiishi showed a deft hand at directing; the scenes stayed moving with focal points of interest all over the stage, but nothing seemed left out or glossed over. The choreographed pieces added to the show without being distracting. And though I hate to say it as a musician, the hallmark of a good orchestral accompaniment is that the audience doesn’t notice it. The orchestra under the direction of Wes Habley was beautiful and symphonic, without ever overpowering the singing.

Kudos, as always, to the set designers, who managed to make a forest grow on the stage of the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts. The costumes designed by Jill Beardsley, Mary Jo Harken, and Jacque Green were simple but effective. Milky White wore white pants and a t-shirt silkscreened with a cow face. Little Red’s wolf was in jeans, leather jacket, and a wolf t-shirt. Cinderella dressed up for the festival in beautiful gold, and down for her chores in her familiar brown dress and apron combo. Little Red’s hooded cape was the most stunning blood red.

Into The Woods is a show about desire, about longing, and loss. It is an emotional ride for the cast and the audience. You should attend for the superb acting, the superior singing, and the emotional heft.

And keep your eye on that cow.

Into the Woods runs through May 3. Tickets are available here.

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