To the woman sitting at the table next to me at “Into the Woods”:
Watch out for that Wolf. He’s a crafty one.
Director Julie Lucido likes to put her actors into the audience when she stages a show at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, and her lively Good Company Players production of “Woods” is no exception. At the Sunday matinee I attended, one of the Wolves — there are two of them prowling about, either Greg Grannis or Shawn Williams, I couldn’t tell which — leapt onto the railing next to the woman and gave a growl.
If tromping deep into the woods created by Broadway master Stephen Sondheim is all about exploring the darker recesses of your psyche, confronting your fears and coming to terms with mortality, then this audience member had a visceral experience. Confronted with the Wolf, she yelped. And laughed. And jumped.
Part of that reaction, I’m sure, was Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed’s Wolf costume, a full-body exercise in fur, teeth and sartorial elegance that combines hirsute ferocity with striking washboard abs. (Going into the woods is also about sex, as Sondheim’s ripe lyrics often make clear.) Up close, it’s quite a sight. And part of that reaction was about the discomfort of being spotlighted in a crowd. In the woods, the natural temptation is to self-camouflage. Being spotted could mean being eaten.
Lots of philosophical food for thought, right?
I like this GCP production overall. It has some strong acting, singing and design, although some elements worked a little less well for me than others.
The storyline: For those who haven’t absorbed “Into the Woods” over the years through pop-culture osmosis, either through the 1987 Broadway production or 2014 movie, the book (by James Lapine) is a sophisticated mashup of fairy tales with a decidedly psychological and introspective bent. Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel and others are all thrown together in a narrative marked by gumption, love and loss. Sondheim’s lyrics can be strikingly funny (one of my favorites: “If the end is right, it justifies the beans”) and haunting.
The standout performances: Jessica Peters, as Little Red, offers stirring vocals and a sharp, pert stage presence — an impressive GCP debut. Kay Kelm is very good as Jack’s Mother. Valerie Salcedo is a radiant Cinderella’s Mother who made me wish the role were bigger. I really like Allyson Darakjian’s amusing turn as Granny. One of my favorite moments in the show comes when Emily Pessano, as the Baker’s Wife, asserts herself in “It Takes Two,” marking the moment when her character begins to take charge of her own life.
The Witch: She deserves a category all her own. Sara Price give a beautiful and textured performance. Her “Children Will Listen” is just gorgeous, and her brisk sense of humor and sharp-tongued willingness to state the obvious is a highlight.
The princes: One of the weaknesses in this production for me is the chemistry between Cinderella’s Prince (played by Grannis) and Rapunzel’s Prince (Shawn Williams). While both are fine on vocals (and, as dual wolves, they’re especially adept at roaming through the theater and startling audience members), their song “Agony,” traditionally one of the comic highlights of the show, felt flat at the Sunday matinee I attended.
The direction and choreography: Lucido offers innovative staging and is expert at using the small Roger Rocka’s stage to maximum effect. And she nicely handles the show’s delicate balance between sweetness and sadness. But this is not a very edgy “Into the Woods.” One of the things the movie version did so well was bring to the forefront the obvious sexual undercurrents in the show, especially between Little Red and the Wolf — and also between Little Red and Jack (played by Connor Pofahl, who never quite soars in the role). Perhaps now that I’ve been exposed to the movie version, I now expect a more sophisticated and hormonal-aware acknowledgement of the lyrics. “Isn’t it nice to know a lot? / And a little bit not,” Little Red sings. Yet this production downplays those coming-of-age intricacies.
The creative team: Besides Lewis-Reed’s sumptuous costumes and David Pierce’s lavish-storybook set, I enjoyed Joielle Adams’ lighting design, particularly at the end of “No More,” when the lights soften, then offer a smudge of resolution. Very nice.
The takeaway: One of the key reminders of “Into the Woods” is that life necessarily has to be about loss, and dealing with that inevitability is part of what it means to face your own journey with strength, resolve and an indefatigable spirit. Sondheim writes: “Sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood / Do not let it grieve you / No one leave for good.” Those words can mean something completely different depending on your age and experience. But they’re universal. This GCP production captures the joy and the heartache. For me, each viewing of “Into the Woods” turns into something special.
“Into the Woods,” a Good Company Players production at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theatre. Continues through Sept. 16. Tickets (some including dessert or dinner) are $32-$60.
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