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Chicago by John Olson

Into the Woods
Porchlight Music Theatre Chicago

Also see John's review of Billy Elliot

Into the Woods
Rachel Quinn and Jeny Wasilewski
The show's title pretty much dictates that the set must have woods, but given the importance of a midnight deadline by which a fairy tale baker and his wife must complete their quest to remove a witch's curse, the huge moon overlooking the proceedings is an appropriate symbol for this musical. This element of Ian Zywica's scenic design dramatically pulls the audience into the fairy tale world, and it's also used as a screen for Liviu Pasare's video projections of various places in the woods as well as animation of action involving giants, wolf attacks, wolf slayings and activities that would otherwise be hard to place on the stage. (The animation here is better in concept than execution, as the character illustrations are just a little too sketchy.) One of the pleasures in making return visits to Into the Woods is seeing how directors and designers handle the more fantastical elements of the well-known Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical amalgamating well-known fairy tales with one of their own creation.

Porchlight's Walter Stearns has put together a sturdy production of this classic, very much in the spirit of Lapine's original direction, with a cast in particularly fine voice. The standout is Brianna Borger as the Baker's Wife. She matches a lovely singing voice with an exceptionally natural and touching portrayal of the female half of the couple seeking to lift the spell of the witch next door that has made them unable to conceive a child. Porchlight regular Bethany Thomas, known for her powerful voice, is that witch. The role only allows her to cut loose vocally in "Last Midnight," and cut loose she does. She gets to show the softer side of her vocals—the side we don't often get to hear—and she handles "Our Little World" and "Stay with Me" with an effective quiet. If her comedic skills aren't always quite up to her singing, she nonetheless makes a suitably nasty witch and abusive mother to daughter Rapunzel.

Equaling Ms. Thomas in the booming voice department are Cameron Brune and William Travis Taylor as the princes. They nail the royal self-absorption of the characters and knock "Agony" out of the park. It's traditional for the same actor to cover the Wolf as well as Cinderella's Prince, but in this production, Brune plays the Wolf, Rapunzel's Prince and the Steward to Cinderella's Prince. He does such an effective comic transformation into the weaselly Steward that one would barely recognize him in the role if not for the printed program. One might wonder why he was triple-cast, but given the high production values of this show—with gorgeous, detailed fairytale book costumes by William J. Morey—I doubt it was for budgetary reasons. Brune was probably simply the best actor for those three parts. Taylor, a senior in the musical theater program at Roosevelt University, has an amazing mature baritone and impresses with his "Any Moment" duet with the Baker's Wife.

Another standout is Rachel Quinn as Cinderella, with a lovely soprano matching her characterization of the maid who becomes a princess as a strong and compassionate young woman. Steve Best as the Baker and Jeny Wasilewski as Little Red Riding Hood compare favorably to the memories of the actors who originated their roles. Scott Sumerak plays Jack as dim more than na´ve, with Kristen Freilich a fairly patient mother to the boy who causes so much of the story's trouble by messing with the Giant and his wife. Henry Michael Odum has warmth as the Narrator and nicely underplays the Mysterious Man as wise old bum in a tattered jacket.

Music Director Eugene Dizon leads a five-piece orchestra of keyboard, a woodwind player and three strings. The reduction in orchestration is fine, but with the powerful voices on stage, the vocalists could easily have held their own against a larger pit band. Danny Bernardo's choreography is a fairly pedestrian mix of expected moves including skipping and kicks.

Fans of this show generally don't like each of its two acts equally. Some feel the piece could end after its "fractured fairy tales" first act and others (and I'm in this group) find it the price of admission to watch the more philosophical second act. I'm wondering if director Stearns doesn't share my preference on this. The cast doesn't fully find or land all the humor in Lapine's first act, but does better with the more emotional second half of the piece. In all, though, it's a very nice production that does justice to the Sondheim score with handsome production values that transport the audience into its fairy tale world.

Into the Woods runs through May 30, 2010 at Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago. Tickets may be purchased through the box office at Theatre Building Chicago, by phone at 773-327-525 or online at www.ticketmaster.com.


Photo: Johnny Knight

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-- John Olson



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