Establishing a new professional theater company in a new (old) performance space is quite an undertaking. To choose as your initial production the Sondheim/Lapine musical Into the Woods is even more challenging. Actor's Repertory Theatre (ART) in Middletown, Ohio opens its inaugural season with this wonderful show which intertwines various classic fairy tales while at the same time provides a large dose of modern social commentary. The results are mixed, with much praise and some caution offered.
The complex Stephen Sondheim score and innovative and quick-paced book by James Lapine are well conceived and written. The musical requires a cast of strong singers and actors and an effective orchestra. The ART cast of mostly college students and recent university graduates does surprising well. These young thespians may lack years of professional experience, but their education as Musical Theater or Fine Arts majors/graduates serves them well. The performers are better singers than actors, but as the show is virtually sung-through, the piece suffers only minimally. Standouts include professional veteran Ty Yadzinski (sounding very much like the Broadway original Robert Westenberg) as Cinderella's Prince/Wolf and Stephanie Richards as the Baker's Wife. Also deserving specific praise is Molly Jo Head as the Witch. As a late replacement for Tony nominee Pamela Myers (who apparently had Equity problems), Ms. Head has big shoes to fill. Despite her youth and lack of rehearsal time, she does quite well with the lead role in all aspects.
ART's Artistic Director, Michael Coyan, directs Into the Woods and captures most of the humor and heart of the show adequately. ART should consider itself truly blessed to have Carmon Deleone as its Musical Director. Mr. Deleone (Music Director for the Cincinnati Ballet, The Illinois Philharmonic, and the Middletown Symphony Orchestra) leads a talented group of on-stage musicians and the show's singers through the detailed and challenging score with ease and dexterity.
While ART succeeds with its personnel on stage, it is let down by the venue and the use of the space. The theater is located in what was a badly neglected 113 year old building in downtown Middletown. This city, the largest between Cincinnati and Dayton, deserves a talented and hard-working professional theater company such as ART. However, one would think that a better performance space could be found. The main stage, located on the third floor of a former Masonic Temple, is narrow and offers little room for sets. The design for Into the Woods, a show that typically requires a large set, is simplistic, with many pieces serving multiple purposes. The choice to extend the performance area in front of the stage (on set pieces) and on the floor is probably a necessary one, but proves difficult for audience members. The "stage" as configured is angled sharply on one side. The seating is likewise angled. As a result, actors are sometimes performing with their backs to audience members seated in the front on the right side of the theater. Sitting in the middle section for the current seating arrangement is highly recommended. Also, with no risers or tiered seating, theatergoers in the back have a difficult time seeing many of the performers, especially those positioned on floor level. These obstacles can likely be corrected, especially with non-musical productions involving smaller casts and design, but they are a liability for this show and detract from the overall experience.
Into the Woods is a strong first effort for this brand new company. Better use of the facilities in the future will only help. Southwest Ohio continues to produce its share of quality theater and Middletown's Actor's Repertory Theatre is a welcome addition. Into the Woods completed its run on October 29th.
-- Scott Cain