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San Francisco by Richard Connema

A Bewitching Production of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods

Also see Richard's reviews of After Dark and A Christmas Carol and Mary Wilson at the Empire Plush Room

Into the Woods
James Monroe Iglehart Courtney Stokes
TheatreWorks is presenting a bewitching production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Into the Woods through January 7th at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. This company has pulled off a wonderful miracle with twenty actors and thirteen musicians in this jewel box of a theatre. Performances are beautifully detailed and the lyrics are mined for every nuance. It is non-stop pure pleasure.

This marks the eleventh time I have seen the fairy tale musical, beginning with the original production in the fall of 1987 with Bernadette Peters and Joanna Gleason, through the recent Broadway revival with Vanessa Williams and the London production with Julia McKenzie. When I first saw the show at the Martin Beck Theatre, I was not impressed, but over the years I have grown to love this fractured fairy tale musical. TheatreWorks' production ranks as one of the best productions of this work that I have seen. It is well balanced and mature, and we get a slightly sentimental view of human helpless in an honorably complex world.

There are no weak performances; every actor has great theatrical presence with marvelous vocal chops. A great performance is given by Christiane Noll (The Mambo Kings, Urinetown, Kept) as the Baker's Wife, who is painfully defenseless, yet wants for something beyond the life she knows. Noll is wonderful in her rendition of "Moments in the Woods," and her duets with Jackson Davis (Living Out, Conversations with My Father) as The Baker are magic.

Thursday Farrar (Aida, Les Miserables, Parade at Lincoln Center) is beguiling as the Witch. Her presentations of "Lament" and "Last Midnight" are chilling. She shows the heart of woman who still wants love from the child she stole. Maureen McVerry (Me and My Girl, Noises Off) excels as Jack's Mother. Cristin Boyle (Anything Goes, The Happy Prince, The Game on the East Coast) as Cinderella provides humor and charisma with her polished vocal cords. Her voice adds great clarity to Cinderella's emotional perplexity in "On the Steps of the Palace."

Michael Hunsaker (national touring companies of Chess, Ragtime) is wonderful as the prancing Cinderella's Prince, and he exhibits his unthinking selfishness when he says "I was raised to be charming, not sincere." His counterpart, Patrick Leveque (Oklahoma plus many other regional musicals) as Rapunzel's Prince has a vibrant voice, especially in the duet "Agony" with Hunsaker, one of the evening's highlights. Courtney Stokes (A Little Princess, A Little Night Music) is great as the cranky Little Red Riding Hood. Robert Brewer (Bat Boy, Beggar's Holiday) gives a sterling performance as Jack. He has amazing force and musical dexterity in his rendition of "Giants in the Sky."

Francis Jue (Thoroughly Modern Millie and Pacific Overtures in New York) returns to the TheatreWorks stage as the narrator. Once again he shows his amazing physical acting talent by appearing in trees, center stage and as chief prop carrier. He has a true theatrical voice when doing the splendid narration of the story. Gary S. Martinez (Shakespeare in Hollywood, Candide) pops up occasionally with his great voice to sound out anomalies that don't make sense as the The Mysterious Man.

Bill Olson as the scene-stealing Milky White manages to give the cow a human intricacy of feeling without singing or speaking. In fact, he does not take off the outfit when giving his final bow at the end of the performance.

Six others also shine: Tielle Baker (Boys from Syracuse) as Rapunzel, Suzanne Grodner (Living Out, Shakespeare in Hollywood) as the campy evil Cinderella's Stepmother, Martin Rojas-Dietrich (Harold and Maude, Sweeney Todd) as the confused father, C. Kelly Wright (Crowns, Memphis, Bat Boy) as Lucinda, Kristen Sharpley (Miss Liberty) as Cinderella's Mother and Sleeping Beauty, and Alison Ewing (Harold and Maude, Beggars' Holiday) as Florinda.

Special attention should be given James Monroe Eglehart as the Wolf; he is a perfect wolf and gets great kudos for "Hello, Little Girl." The choral work on "Children Will Listen" at the end of the performance is thrilling.

Director Robert Kelly, with scenic designer J.B. Wilson and costume designer Jill C. Bowers, has mounted a lavish and brilliant production. Francis Jue has designed some very first-rate choreography for the group while lighting designer Steven B. Mannshardt has displayed an emotional effect to scenes.

William Liberatore once again shows he is one of the best musical conductors around, and the twelve piece orchestra gives splendid accompaniment to Sondheim's tricky melodies. Into the Woods is an exciting detonation of color and melody.

Into the Woods plays through January 7, 2006 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. For tickets call 650-903-6000 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

TheatreWorks' next production will be regional premiere of Sarah Ruhl's Award Winning The Clean House, opening on January 18th.


Photo: David Allen


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

- Richard Connema



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