Into the Woods
If you've never seen it before (and I had I not), the most suspenseful moments will be during that intermission. For by the end of act one, all the loose ends are tied up for Cinderella, Rapunzel, the Baker and his wife, and Jack, his mom and the beanstalk; and you could easily be forgiven for thinking there was simply no story left to tell. But the nihilism of that second half (it's really more like 55 minutes), by way of Mr. Pirandello, raises fantastic questions about who we are, and how we ought to behave, now that we're too old for bed-time stories ourselves.
I don't want to get bogged down in a Wikipedia-style essay about how we rise from the legends we create, and then struggle with those self-inflicted role models for years to come. Suffice it to say that the second act captures a quiet sense of wonder over the fact that one can feel less wise as a grown-up than he did as a child. And if you've got to wander through a spiritual wasteland as an adult, you could do worse than go with not one, but two Prince Charmings, the baker and his wife, a mysterious narrator and a beautiful but powerless witch, all pursued by the giant widow of a giant corpse (thanks to a handful of magic beans). And it'd be enough if it were just those well-known local singers (Jeffrey Wright, Justin Ivan Brown, JT Ricroft, Laura Kyro, Steve Callahan and Deborah Sharn, plus the thunderous voice of Kay Love). But there are also recurring, stunningly perfect interruptions by younger, lesser known performers as well: Christina Rios (actually pretty-darned well known by now) is magnificent as Cinderella; Alex Miller is a riot as Little Red Riding Hood; and Leslie Sikes is deliriously funny and silvery-voiced as Rapunzel. It is a fabulous embarrassment of riches, this cast, along with the award-winning Donna Weinsting, Kim Furlow, Ken Haller and others.
Now, the evening I attended, there were some rather awful acoustical problems in the first ten minutes or so, and a lot of clumsy stepping-on-lines in the first page or so of the opening number, and it seemed to me that most of the chorus numbers suffered from Sondheim-related muddiness (the all-too-common tendency for any group of singers in one of his shows to be anything less than rigorously tight). But soon your ear adapts, or the performers adjust to the space, and you realize Director Bell is just going to keep pulling another amazing performer, and then another, out of his hat every five minutes or so. If you're new in town, and need a quick who's who of musical theater experts, this is a very good introduction to the local scene.
The childless baker and his wife, played by Mr. Ricroft and Ms. Kyro, become the most surprising performances of the night: their beautiful singing and perfectly-keyed acting unite the whole story, stringing together a dozen or more jewel-like characterizations on stage, especially in the second half. I can't say enough about the younger cast members either, especially Mme's Rios, Miller and Sikes. Other colorful, sharp-as-a-tack performers include Zach Huels as Jack, Natasha Toro and Laura Coppinger as the ugly step-sisters, and Vincent Wieck as Mr. Brown's court steward.
The set (all stairs and platforms and woodsy camouflage) put my heart in my mouth nearly every time somebody had to go racing up or down, especially when the women in their long gowns had to climb from one playing area to another. But nobody fell on their ass the night I was there, so I have to defer to Mr. Bell's wisdom here, and that of set designer Tyler Duenow. They certainly make the most of their proscenium stage, stacking the story at least three levels high, with more treads and risers than M.C. Escher ever dreamt of.
Through October 10, 2009 at the Abbey in Tower Grove East, 2336 Tennessee, St. Louis MO, 63104. For more information call (314) 865-1995 or visit them online at www.StrayDogTheatre.org
Photograph by John C. Lamb