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San Francisco by Richard Connema

An Interesting Production of Into the Woods

Also see Richard's reviews of Communicating Doors and Southern Baptist Sissies

Hoochi-Doo Productions has merged with The Ross Valley Players to present the Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical Into the Woods, which plays at the Ross Valley Playhouse in Ross through June 13th. This is my tenth viewing of the classic musical that opened at the Martin Beck Theatre on September 29, 1987 with Bernadette Peters playing the witch and Joanna Gleason playing the Baker's Wife. I was not impressed when I first saw the original during the winter of 1988. I felt it was one of the master craftsman's weaker efforts. After further viewings I have completely changed my mind and feel this is one of Sondheim's greatest works. I have seen two major productions in London, plus the 10th Anniversary reunion at the Broadway Theatre in 1997 with Ms. Peters repeating her role, two very fine productions in Los Angeles (including Actors Co-op in the small 99 seat Crossley Theatre) and two good professional productions here in San Francisco. Our last encounter was the recent revival in New York with Vanessa Williams playing the witch and Gregg Edelman as one of the princes.

James Lapine blends various familiar fairy tales with an original story of a childless baker and his wife who catalyze the action of the story by attempting to reverse a curse on their family in order to have a child. The couple meets such characters as Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and his cow, a wolf, and Rapunzel. Their travels present a nice fusion of these characters. Act two presents the darker side of what happens after "happily ever after" and there are no fairy tale endings.

Hoochi-Doo and Ross Valley Players has shown great courage in presenting this complex and difficult musical. "The difficulty of Sondheim's music and lyrics serves as a real lesson for anyone who has to perform this work," says Luke Wrobel, artistic director of the SouthCoast Rep. I am inclined to agree with the director since the singers and actors must focus most of their attention on the lyrics and complicated music. There must be split-second timing on the part of all of the actors to get this musical across.

Hoochi-Doo and The Ross Valley Players have assembled a large cast with some very good performers in the major roles. Directors San Bernardi and Vicki Martinez have managed to harness the talent and creativity of many of the singers/actors. There are ragged moments, such as when the cast gives out their one line pieces of wisdom in several segments. They are not clear in presenting these wonderful little gems by James Lapine. Sometimes the entrances are not as smooth as they could be but for a semi-professional company they do a creditable job.

Special kudos should go to some very talented members in this large cast. Seventeen-year-old Matt Doyle is already a top professional singer/actor with his portrayal of young Jack with the magic beans. He has an irrepressible singing voice and is full of youthful energy. He delivers the melodious "Giants in the Sky" with a rich voice that still has a young person's genuineness that is just right for the part. This young man is one of eight selected for NYU's CAP 21 musical theatre program this summer.

Linda McCulloch, who has been seen in many regional productions, excels in singing her part as the Witch. In the first act with a Halloween type mask she reminds me of Phyllis Diller playing the role. The artist delivers a nice upbeat rhythm to the patter song "Lament" and she gives a strong and dramatic rendition of "Last Midnight" in the second act. Seventh grader Sarah Smithton is thoroughly professional as Little Red Riding Hood (she won the Bay Area Critics Circle Award for Annie), and she can belt out a song with her dynamo voice.

Sean Bernardi as the Baker gives one of the best sung performances of the night with his rendition of "No One is Alone." Raymond C. Duval as Cinderella's Prince and Scott Maraj as Rapunzel's Prince have campy and acting chops in the clever comic ode "Agony," and Duval is good as the wolf singing "Hello, Little Girl," although he seems to have problems singing through the wolf mask. Rayna Hickman as Cinderella is especially fine in the second act "No One Is Alone" and "Any Moment."

Cindy Brillhart-True is very droll as The Baker's Wife. She has a pleasing voice in the duets "Maybe They're Magic" and "A Very Nice Prince." Sarita Cannon as Rapunzel has nice singing chops in her duet with McCulloch, "Stay With Me." Sharon Boucher is properly motherly as Jack's mother, and Ralph William Boone makes a good narrator and mystery man with an atrocious beard.

Sean Bernardi has designed not only the set but the theater as well to give it a woods-like appearance. He has incorporated some of the set design that was on the Broadhurst stage for the last revival. The giant storybooks that appear on stage at the start are very amusing. Since the performance is in a barn-like theater, the musical is apropos to the surroundings.

Into the Woods runs through June 13 at the Ross Valley Playhouse, The Barn Theatre, Marin Art and Garden Center, Sir Francis Drake Blvd at Lagunitas in Ross. For tickets call 707-546-2957 or 415-456-9555 or visit their websites at www.hoochi-dooproductions.com or www.rossvalleyplayers.org.

Ross Valley's last production of the current season will be Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers from July 16 through August 22nd.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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