Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Into the Woods
Palo Alto Players
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's review of Boeing Boeing

Adrienne Walters, Timothy Sanders, Chris Janssen, and Elizabeth Santana
Photo by Joyce Goldschmid
Continuing its 85th Anniversary, touted the "Toniest Season Ever," Palo Alto Players ventures into a forest previously much traveled by many of its sister Bay Area stages. What more can possibly be squeezed out of what happens after "happily ever after" in the Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (book) multi-Tony-winning (1988 and 2002) Into the Woods? While steering away from some of the darker, more sensuous productions of late, Palo Alto Players has instead found that a good measure of tongue-in-cheek, a little camp here and there, beautifully imaginative staging, and a cast full of superb voices in fact are the right combination to warrant bringing this much-beloved, fractured fairy tale musical once again to a local stage.

As the curtain rises, three small houses of bright color and off-kilter angles rise in front of a dark forest of redwood-trunk-proportion trees, with rocky, uneven paths heading off to some unseen mountain. Patrick Klein's scenic design takes on a starring role as later wanderings in the woods occur while trees rotate ominously and magically among lost visitors and as godmothers, witches, and maidens pop out of high windows in side towers. Combined with songs of birds and giants (Grant Huberty, sound) and looming shadows of a darkened forest and its flying bats (Carolyn A. Foot, lighting), the scene is fully set for all the comings and goings and carryings on—whether fortuitous, frivolous, or fatal. Add costumes (Pat Tyler) right off the pages of a children's book of wondrous tales, but then twist them just enough with a few, warped concepts like deeply shadowed eyes, flour-pale skin tones, and pink, blue, or rainbow-striped hair (Christine Ormseth, hair/make-up), and all is set for the actors and their stories to take over.

A neighborhood of faces familiar to any Western Civilization child emerge and immediately begin to wish for something out of reach. Cinderella cannot go to the Festival while her step-uglies are all a twitter about meeting the Prince there. Jack and his mother are starving and she sends him off to sell their bony, white cow (who happens to be his best friend). The local witch has towered away her daughter Rapunzel and doomed the Baker and his Wife childless (the only two characters not found in our growing-up fairy-tale books). Little Red Riding Hood heads out to Grandmother's house to meet you-know-whom along the way. Together, the entire groups sings and dances, "Into the woods to get my wish, I don't care how, the time is now."

Much of act one is centered on the Baker and his Wife looking to break the next-door Witch's curse once given to his father (who stole some beans from her yard). All they have to do is find "the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold" (we can readily identify where they are, but of course they have no clue). Chris Janssen and Elizabeth Santana each bring nuanced personality and great singing voices to their Baker and the Baker's Wife, as proven in their "It Takes Two." His nervous timidity and flustered indecisiveness make his macho protectiveness of his wife all the starker and sillier. She is the steadying force who knows the practicalities and bent-rules it takes to succeed in these woods. "What matters is that everyone tells tiny lies ... What's important really is the size," she sings in "Maybe They're Magic." Ms. Santana time and again shines in soprano clarity, including in her act two solo "Moments in the Woods" when she reflects on a happenstance, princely tryst: "Just remembering you've had an 'and,' when you're back to 'or,' makes the 'or' mean more than it did before."

Their nemesis is the darkly cloaked Witch with a long, twisted nose of warts. With a hair-tingling laugh and scream, Izetta Klein is a witch through and through; but the Witch's heart and her own longings and regrets become more and more clear in each of her increasingly emotional, haunting solos: "Stay with Me," "Lament," and "Last Midnight."

These are just three of a cast who each has well-served moments of melodic and acting spotlight. Taylor Sanders maximizes the curiosity and impetuousness of a young girl in her Little Red Riding Hood, bringing a youthful, fresh-sounding voice to "I Know Things Now" while adding newfound depth as she intones, "Isn't it nice to know a lot! ... and a little bit not" after her encounter with the Wolf. As the Wolf, furry, big-mouthed and in an outfit befitting a carnival barker, Steven Ennis is a great mixture of evil foreboding and silly caricature as he sings with evil tease his duet with Red, "Hello, Little Girl." Chrissy Brooks is the high-pitched, spry Grandmother in nightgown (and later, the reverberating echo of a Lady Giant).

Timothy Sanders reminds us that Jack is still a wonder-eyed, but just a bit scared, boy in his well-delivered "Giants in the Sky"; and his constant quest to reunite with his beloved cow, Milky-White, gives him a chance to show off his Tom Sawyer rambunctiousness that further proves this giant-killer is really just a kid. One of the best inventions of Patrick Klein's masterfully directed show is the decision to make Milky-White a cow with personality-plus and a presence which Adrienne Walters milks every silent minute she is on stage with wide-eyed, cocked-head, slumped-body reactions by the dozens to all the many goings-on around her. Rounding out this family grouping is Jack's Mother, a furious tornado of speedy moves by a big woman with a bigger voice as so ably portrayed by Marisol Soria Urbano.

Morgan Dayley, Sharon Lita, and Jenny Levere bring much hilarity to the roles of Cinderella's Stepmother and stepsisters, and their attempts of fitting into the golden slipper are a bloody good time (so to speak). Once blinded by pigeons, the latter two in their gowns and hair of either pink or blue and their dark glasses and canes are particularly funny as they traipse about like two of the three blind mice.

Often one of the show-stopping moments of Into the Woods is both the first and second act appearances of the two Prince Charmings (one for Cinderella, one for Rapunzel) in their initial and reprised "Agony." As airheads with huge egos, they prance and preen and play off each other as "bros" in full romance. Steven Ennis returns in a second role in shoulder-length red hair (which his prince loves to flip and toss) as Cinderella's beau, joined in silly song and forested sally by Rapunzel's Prince, Drew Reitz. While their duets fail to meet full potential of Sondheim's ditty, they do fair justice with full voices and chest-bearing antics. And off in the distance, the yodel-like "Ah-ah-ah-ahs" of Rapunzel (Jessica Whittemore) fill the air while pompously appearing from time to time is a Prince's Steward (with too quick temper), Mohamed Ismail.

Opening with the fully required "Once upon a time," Walter M. Mayes gives rich, radio-announcer voice as the story's ongoing Narrator. He also is the bearded, creepy Mysterious Man who keeps trying to help the clueless Baker find his needed items. Together, after a world of woe has filled the woods, they sing a moving "No More" about legacies left and lost, father to son.

Probably for many in the audience, the Lapine storyline is familiar from past viewings on stage or film. However, its many twists and turns are always fascinating to watch unfold, and the Sondheim lyrics employed to tell the tale are so characteristically complex and unexpected, that each time Into the Woods is seen, there are new discoveries to be found. And however happy the "Ever After" is at the end of act one's grand finale (in this case, preformed close to perfection by the full cast), we all soon learn that even in these woods, disappointed dreams, infidelity, deceit, death, and, of course, giants lurk in the shadows.

Put it all together, and Palo Alto Players has done itself well in gracing another Silicon Valley stage with one of Sondheim's (and Lapine's) best. Into the Woods is a journey well worth taking to remind ourselves of the magic, mystery, and misery that are important parts of this thing we call life.

IInto the Woods continues through May 8, 2016, at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are available at or by calling 650-329-0891.