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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Into the Woods
Grand Canyon University

Also see Gil's review of Around the World in 80 Days

Rachel Callahan and Joy Flatz
Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Into the Woods is one of the cleverest musicals ever written. They seamlessly weaved together familiar fairy tales that we all grew up with into a musical where the stories of Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel all interconnect with each other. Sondheim's score and Lapine's book come together effortlessly in a show that has just as many comical moments as it does reflective ones. The production that is running at Grand Canyon University through April 13 is just as creative and effortless, with impressive costumes, sets and make-up, assured direction, and an almost perfect cast.

Into the Woods includes some of Sondheim's most intricate and humorous rhyme schemes and some of Lapine's funniest and most touching dialogue. It isn't a far stretch to assume that these well-known tales all happened in the same place, and since most of them have scenes that take place in the woods, it also seems fitting that the setting of the woods would be the way to connect them all. But what Sondheim and Lapine also did was to create an entirely original fairy tale, the story of the Baker and his wife who are desperate to have a child, as the way to bring these famous stories together. The Baker and the Baker's Wife live right next door to a Witch. She tells the couple that she placed a curse on their family and that is why they are unable to have a child. However, if they wish to have the curse reversed there is a potion that is made up of four items that they can bring to her and the curse will be lifted. The ingredients of the potion aren't clearly spelled out and when the Baker and his wife are sent off to the woods by the Witch to get the items, they meet up with the other fairy tale characters who are also in the woods: Jack on his way to market to sell his cow, Little Red on her way to her grandmother's house, Rapunzel who lives in a tower in the woods, and Cinderella who is on her way back from the ball. They, and the audience, quickly realize that the four required items are related to these other characters and are yet another creative way that Sondheim and Lapine combine the stories into one adventure.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg in creativeness, as Sondheim and Lapine crafted a second act that shows what happens after "happily ever after" with the humor and happiness of the first act having serious repercussions. Sondheim and Lapine are clearly saying to be careful what you wish for, as all wishes that come true may not result in the exact type of happiness we originally dreamed they'd have.

It's nice to see that director Claude Pensis doesn't fall back on using any of Lapine's original direction, instead coming up with plenty of original moments, both comical and serious ones. Also, Sondheim's score has many overlapping and intricate parts, sometimes including the entire cast. Pensis and his cast are up to the challenge of these complicated moments, providing a swift telling of the show, with assured musical moments that never have the cast getting hung up at any time and never having to slow down the pace of the songs. Pensis also wisely uses numerous entry points around the stage, including two that go out to the front sides and toward the audience; the multiple entrances and exits allow the somewhat static "woods" set design to more accurately represent the various places in the woods where the characters travel and the scenes take place.

The cast is just about perfect. Gavin Ely makes the Baker a charming and likeable man on a mission, and he has a lovely singing voice as well. Claire Flatz as the Baker's Wife is equally impressive, with assured singing and well-honed comic timing. She also nicely shows the conflicted sides of the character. Their duet, "It Takes Two," is nicely done in a romantic and humorous way. Joy Flatz is delightful and touching as Cinderella, and she gives a lively interpretation of this well-known character with a lovely version of her solo song "On the Steps of the Palace." As the Witch, Megan Sprink-VanCamp is engaging and nicely blends both the amusing and the menacing parts of the character. She also looks quite stunning once her character experiences a transformation.

With an appropriate droll delivery combined with a sunny disposition, Rachel Callahan is delightful as Little Red Riding Hood. Her take on "I Know Things Now" is delivered perfectly, with her character realizing things throughout the song, which is exactly the way it should be sung. Adam Benavides makes Jack a good natured, though somewhat dim, young lad with a nice delivery of his lines. His solo, "Giants in the Sky," is bright and clear. As the two Princes, Taylor Kortman and Dominic Baxter are fresh and delightful with nicely accented and affected voices that have an appropriately condescending tone when they speak to anyone who isn't royal. They do a nice job with their duet "Agony," though Baxter struggles just a bit with his singing.

Of the supporting parts I especially liked Tatum Kaiser as Jack's Mother and Joshua Vanderpoel as the Mysterious Man the characters meet in the woods. Kaiser has a superb voice, perfect comic timing, and a clear understanding of her character. Vanderpoel makes the Mysterious Man a fairy tale character come to life with his humorous voice, refined comical delivery, and rubber-like body movement.

William H. Symington's sets and prop designs include three simple yet effective storybook set pieces with phrases like "Once Upon a Time" painted on them, a spectacular tower for Rapunzel, and a comical carriage for Cinderella's stepmother and stepsisters as well as imaginative props that include a magical staff for the witch. Nola Yergen's costume designs help to define the characters. Her many nice touches include: the Baker wearing clothes with flour marks on them; the witch wearing a spectacular tattered dress that transforms later into a knock out slinky number; the poor and dirty Cinderella appropriately having rips in her dress; and the wolf wearing gloves with long, pointy nails. Rose Malone's lighting design is nicely done and Bradley Beamon's sound design includes an effective amplified effect for the giant's voice. The hair and make-up designs by Allison Bauer, Rebekah Dipple and Kay Gray are superb and add a heightened element of fairy tale imagination to the production.

While the direction, cast and creative elements are extremely well done, my only quibbles are that some of the humorous lines are too rushed, or delivered too seriously, thus losing a few punch lines in Lapine's well-crafted book, and two songs have some slight directive flaws. "Your Fault," where the characters are trying to determine who is to blame for the bad fortune they are now facing, is staged with the characters constantly pushing each other, which adds an unnecessary and continually repetitive movement to the song that detracts from the lyrics. The Witch's solo, "Last Midnight," ends with her being overpowered by a smoke effect before the song is finished, completely making her hidden by the smoke for the last 30 seconds of the song. Perhaps having her move forward to be in front of the smoke and then stepping back as the song finishes, as if it is sucking her away, would be a more accurate way to depict the ending of this song. And, though the band is nicely directed, the score loses some of its lushness when played by only five instruments.

But those negative moments are small when compared to the good work that GCU is performing. This is a delightful, witty and enchanting production of one of the most creative and ingenious musicals. With some of Sondheim's brightest gems, including the ballads "No One is Alone," and "Children Will Listen," Into the Woods is a show that also has important lessons and messages underneath the comical exterior. The GCU production is able to get those messages across, and moves smoothly and swiftly with a well-directed cast that presents this complex tale in a worthwhile and worth watching production.

Into the Woods at Grand Canyon University's Ethington Theatre runs through April 13, 2014. The theatre is located at 3300 W. Camelback Road in Phoenix and ticket and performance information can be found at or by calling (602) 639-8880.

Director: Claude Pensis
Musical Director: Mark Fearey
Scenic Designer/Properties Manager: William H. Symington
Lighting Designer: Rose Malone
Costume Designer: Nola Yergen
Hair and Makeup Designers: Allison Bauer, Rebekah Dipple and Kay Gray
Sound Designer: Bradley Beamon

Narrator: Javier Gonzalez
Cinderella: Joy Flatz
Jack: Adam Benavides
Jack's Mother: Tatum Kaiser
Baker: Gavin Ely
Baker's Wife: Claire Flatz
Cinderella's Stepmother: Brittany Thomas
Florinda: Devyn Garrett
Lucinda: Jessilina Nhieu
Cinderella's Father: Preston MacDonald
Little Red Riding Hood: Rachel Callahan
Witch: Megan Sprink-VanCamp
Cinderella's Mother: Ashley Mines
Mysterious Man: Joshua Vanderpoel
Wolf: Cole Brackney
Granny: Vanessa Valdez
Rapunzel: Natalie Shuler
Rapunzel's Prince: Dominic Baxter
Cinderella's Prince: Taylor Kortman
Steward: Bradley Beamon
Voice of Giant: DeAnna Zaccaria
Snow White: Brenna Willson
Sleeping Beauty: Ashley Laneri

Photo: Daryl Webb/Grand Canyon University

--Gil Benbrook

Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix

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