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Regional Reviews by Nancy Grossman

Into the Woods
Lyric Stage Company

Also see Sarah's report on the 2014 Elliot Norton Awards


The Cast
The Lyric Stage Company of Boston caps its 40th anniversary season in grand style with Into the Woods, the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine reimagining of classic Brothers Grimm folk stories which took home three Tony Awards when it first appeared on Broadway in 1987. Producing Artistic Director Spiro Veloudos has a proven record as an interpreter of Sondheim's works, and his well-chosen cast of 17 actors meets the challenges of the composer's complex score while making it look easy. Music director Catherine Stornetta on keyboard and a six-piece orchestra provide a rich, full soundscape that is perfect for the Lyric's intimate space.

As the director, Veloudos' vision of keying in on the consequences of wishes permeates the production, finding meaning in the message that will appeal to adults. We all like to be told stories—isn't that why we go to the theater?—and fairy tales are the ultimate narrative because they tell the truth camouflaged by fantasy. In this staging, each character feels like a real person, regardless of the fantastic aspects of their stories, because Veloudos respects their humanity (that includes the Wolf) and draws fully realized performances from every member of the ensemble, no matter how large or small the role. Dress them up in Elisabetta Polito's intricate costumes, send them on their journey through woods designed by David Towlun with atmospheric lighting designed by Scott Clyve and scary noises provided by sound designer Andrew Will, and together we enter a magical world of happily ever after.

This is not the Disney version of the familiar tales, so not everyone ends up happy (many end up dead) and happily ever after takes on new meaning that is more reality-based. Lapine's book centers on a Baker (John Ambrosino) and the Baker's Wife (Lisa Yuen) who are unable to conceive a child as a result of a family curse imposed by the Witch (Aimee Doherty) next door. In order to reverse the curse, she sends them on a scavenger hunt for four items which they must retrieve before three midnights pass, and they encounter the other characters who are in the woods for a variety of reasons. A Narrator (Will McGarrahan) sets the scene from the beginning and updates the audience with commentary throughout the play. He also appears periodically as Mysterious Man, confusing some of the characters with his seemingly nonsensical remarks which eventually turn out to make sense.

During their search, the Baker and his Wife negotiate with a wiseacre Little Red Riding Hood (Maritza Bostic), dim-witted Jack of beanstalk fame (Gregory Balla), sheltered Rapunzel (Amanda Spinella), and ambivalent Cinderella (Erica Spyres) to obtain the needed items. They also run into a pair of self-involved Princes (Maurice Emmanuel Parent and Sam Simahk), Cinderella's Stepmother (Maureen Keiller) and her selfish daughters Florinda (Christina English) and Lucinda (Elise Arsenault), and a rampaging giant (cleverly imagined by Johnathan Carr's projection design) for good measure. The dramatic arc connects the disparate characters who might otherwise never meet, and forces them to put aside their individual pursuits to work together for a common goal.

The characters may be disparate, but the actors playing them have one significant thing in common: talent. With the exception of the feisty Bostic who is making her Lyric Stage debut, all have worked with Veloudos before and the experience shows in the tightness of the ensemble. During the act one opening, the entire company parades through while being introduced by the Narrator and they have just a moment to create a first impression. Keiller shows right away that the Stepmother is deliciously wicked and her daughters are vapid and vain as characterized by English and Arsenault. They all ooze contempt for Cinderella, but her spunk and sunny demeanor protect her from them as she pursues her dream of going to the festival at the royal palace. Her woebegone father (Arthur Waldstein) tags along in the background, but doesn't have much to say. Spyres is in fine voice (when is she not?) and plays her part with nuance, finding Cinderella's inner strength and bringing out her feminist side. She also imparts the moral of the story in a lovely rendition of the eleven o'clock number "No One Is Alone."

Without casting aspersions on the men, the women rule in this production. Doherty gives a killer performance, commanding every scene she's in and benefiting from great special effects for her entrance and exit. She uses her considerable mugging and comedic skills, but elicits empathy and makes the character three-dimensional by the raw emotion she shows in a touching scene with Rapunzel and vocally in "Witch's Lament." Sharing top honors with Doherty, Yuen's portrayal is multi-faceted and resoundingly natural. She is a charmer with a lovely voice, blending beautifully in several duets. Spinella's exquisite soprano belies Rapunzel's adolescent rebelliousness, and Teresa Winner Blume sings soothing encouragement to her daughter as the spirit of Cinderella's mother. Beth Gotha conveys the worry and frustration of being Jack's mother.

The men strut their stuff on this journey, too, with a quartet of amazing voices. Ambrosino's likability suits the role of the everyman Baker and he shows the changes in his character as a result of his journey. As Jack grows from naive boy to man, the sweet-voiced Balla manages to morph from wide-eyed wonder to maturity. Speaking of big eyes, Parent plays the Wolf as a menacing charmer before taking on the role of the charming Prince. His rendition of "Agony" with Simahk showcases two of the finest voices in the area and is a lesson in playing it straight for laughs as their seriousness draws out all of the song's humor. Adding their voices to the company are McGarrahan and Jeff Mahoney as the Prince's Steward.

The synergy between Veloudos, Stornetta and the entire design team is evident in the finished product. The aural and visual components combine to convert the diminutive stage into a magical woodland where the fictional characters cannot see the forest for the trees. However, much like Pinocchio's journey from puppet to real boy, the visitors to these woods listen to the words of their wise composer, learn from their experiences, and gain new perspectives from their excursion Into the Woods. "Everything you learn there will help when you return there."

Into the Woods, performances extended (three times) through June 29 at The Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-585-5678 or www.lyricstage.com. Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by James Lapine, Directed and Staged by Spiro Veloudos; Music Director, Catherine Stornetta; Scenic Design, David Towlun; Costume Design, Elisabetta Polito; Lighting Design, Scott Clyve; Sound Design, Andrew Duncan Will; Projection Design, Johnathan Carr; Production Stage Manager, Robin Grady; Assistant Stage Manager, Nerys Powell

Cast (in alphabetical order): John Ambrosino, Elise Arsenault, Gregory Balla, Teresa Winner Blume, Maritza Bostic, Aimee Doherty, Christina English, Beth Gotha, Maureen Keiller, Jeff Mahoney, Will McGarrahan, Maurice Emmanuel Parent, Sam Simahk, Amanda Spinella, Erica Spyres, Arthur Waldstein, Lisa Yuen


Photo: Mark S. Howard



- Nancy Grossman



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