Regional Reviews: Florida - Southern
Into the Woods
Also see John's review of The Wiz
Into the Woods was inspired by Bruno Bettelheim's 1976 book "The Uses of Enchantment." In the musical, plots and characters from the fairy tales "Little Red Riding Hood," "Jack and the Beanstalk," "Rapunzel," and "Cinderella" are incorporated with other characters such as Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. Their stories are connected by the new story of a baker and his wife, involving their desire to have a child. The musical expands upon the original stories by exploring the consequences of the characters having their wishes come true, by picking up their fairy tale lives where the phrase " ... and they lived happily ever after" leaves off.
Sondheim and Lapine handle the second act in particular with the dark feel that was used by the Brothers Grimm. Though the Americanized versions of many of these fairy tales are sugary sweet, the originals frequently hold a gruesome twist or two. While the villains are usually the recipients of these ugly outcomes, in Into the Woods it is the protagonists who see their seemingly perfect wishes come true in unexpected ways. The point is clear. We all must test ourselves by entering into the woods from time to time, for it is through those journeys that we grow. But be careful what you wish for, and don't be surprised if what you end up with at the end of the journey is quite different from what you thought you wanted.
In the song "Children Will Listen" Sondheim's brilliant lyrics caution: "Careful the wish you make, wishes are children. Careful the path they take, wishes come true - not free. Careful the spell you cast not just on children. Sometimes the spell may last past what you can see, and turn against you. Careful the tale you tell. That is the spell. Children will listen."
As this production is performed in the Carnival Studio Theatre of the Arsht it has a more intimate feel than the way the show is usually treated. Though the space is small, scenic design secures the imagery of the woods all around, and a general darkness sets the feel of the mystery held therein. The lighting design is perhaps simplistic at times, lacking in depth and layers. Costuming is generally good, but there are a few clunkers. All of Cinderella's family and the royal family's costumes are lovely. Cinderella's gown in particular is absolutely gorgeous, and perfectly fitted to the actress. Little Red Riding Hood's outfit is all wrong: the cinched waist unflatteringly both smashes and draws attention to her bosom, showing us that she is not at all a little girl. It is paired with an overly bright, red, ruffled skirt of what can be best described as "Lolita" shortness. Disappointingly the Witch's post-transformation outfit looks like it came right off a Halloween costume rack. It is also puzzling that the Baker's jacket (which belonged to his father) looks like a fleece-lined bomber jacket.
Though on the night attended, the Narrator's mic was not on for a few seconds at the top of three scenes, Rich Szczublewski has otherwise done a commendable job with sound design, enabling us to hear every word, through wolf masks, long beards and many wigs. A 10-piece orchestra plays the score decently, though there are some rough edges on a few of the transitions, and the winds are not as polished as they could be. Music director Robert Neumeyer has wisely taken some of the music slightly under-tempo. This score can whiz by at a brisk pace, with words sometimes nearly lost. Taking it under-tempo allows the actors to act the songs more fully, and for the audience to catch it all. This is especially welcome in the act one and two Openings and Finales, as well as "Your Fault" and all three "Midnights".
Justin John Moniz has a commanding stage presence and strong singing voice as both the Wolf and Cinderella's Prince. He is well paired with Matthew Janisse as Rapunzel's Prince in scenes which capture the over-exaggerated pompous nature of the royal brothers. The second act scene in which Cinderella (Annemarie Rosano) and her Prince determine to go their separate ways is touchingly acted by Rosano. Though late in the show, it is the moment Cinderella becomes a woman rather than just a bride.
As the Baker's Wife, Arielle Jacobs provides a performance of "Moments in the Woods" that is truly is the best I have ever seen the song acted. It is fitting that her strongest moment is immediately before her character's demise. Bruno Vida is charming and sure of voice as Jack. He plays well off of Magan Dee Yantko as Little Red Riding Hood. Yantko brings freshness to the role by making Little Red Riding Hood as much a real person as she can, instead of playing her merely as a brat. She fleshes out the character nicely. Laura Hodos and Wayne LeGette bring freshness to their roles as Cinderella's Stepmother and the Mysterious Man as well. Hodos finds more comedic bits to the role than I knew existed, and LeGette (who does double duty as the Narrator) brings an unexpectedly humorous eccentricity to his portrayal.
J.J. Caruncho struggles as the Baker. He seems almost stage shy in the first few scenes, delivering his lines in profile, barely cheating out. He seems to have a hard time connecting his character to the ones around him, and creates no tangible chemistry with them. Though he has a pleasant singing voice, he speak-sings too much of his songs (particularly distracting in "No More Giants"), and drops words at the beginnings of sung phrases in some of the group numbers. It's as though he doesn't yet have a firm grasp of his character. It is still early in the run, so perhaps this will change with time. With a character so important to the script, hopefully he will quickly catch up to the level of his fellow castmates.
Tituss Burgess does not fare as well as the Witch as one would hope. Other performers certainly have appeared in roles as a result of gender-bending or gender-blind casting. Think of Whoopi Goldberg stepping in to replace Nathan Lane as Pseudolus in the 1996 revival of A Funny Thing Happened on The Way To The Forum. So, it can and has been done with success. Alas, not so in this case. Once the Witch is transformed into her former beauty, Burgess plays her as a cross between a drag queen and one of the cast members from "The Real Housewives of Atlanta." The choice just doesn't work for Sondheim's Witch. His singing voice then too frequently spends time in a lovely but reedy falsetto that fits neither the character nor the emotion of the moment. Burgess is a major talent whose ability is simply not well suited to this part and, although he is a star in his own right, he is not enough of a celebrity draw that he would be cast in this role for ticket sales.
While solid performances and scattered memorable moments exist within this production, it suffers from choppy direction. It is not that the director, Justin Fortunato, is not capable of creating pictures and framing beats, but there is a rhythm and pacing that is fundamentally lacking. One must be patient enough to sit through those less consistent moments to reap the rewards of the worthy ones.
Into the Woods originally debuted in 1986 in San Diego at the Old Globe Theatre. It opened on Broadway at the Martin Beck Theatre on November 5, 1987, closing on September 3, 1989, after 764 performances. The production won four Drama Desk Awards and three Tony Awards including Best Score, Best Book, and Best Actress in a Musical (Joanna Gleason). A Broadway revival opened April 30, 2002, at the Broadhurst Theatre, closing on December 29 after a run of 18 previews and 279 regular performances. It received two Tony Awards and two Drama Desk Awards.
DreamCatcher Theatre was founded by Natalie and J.J. Caruncho to be an artist-driven company of the deep belief that the stories that we chose to tell, and how we tell them truly matter, with the hope to find spaces to fill with visceral, engaging and magical storytelling experiences for audiences.
Into The Woods will be appearing at the Carnival Studio Theater in the Ziff Ballet Opera House, at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County, through February 15, 2015. The Adrienne Arsht Center is located at 1300 Biscayne Boulevard, Miami, FL 33132. For tickets visit www.arshtcenter.org, or call the Box Office at 305-949-6722.
*Indicates member of the Actor's Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.
**Represented by United Scenic Artists, Local USA 829 of the IATSE
Member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society