No theatergoer should be made to stare at an ugly set for three hours. If one must, however, one should do so at Phoenix Theatre's new production of Into the Woods. Its dreary gray forest, designed by usually dependable scenic designer Gregory Jaye, is hung limply with unsightly rope and fabric samples. It's also filled to bursting with dazzling performances and rousing renditions of some of Stephen Sondheim's most hummable tunes.
For those who may have somehow missed it, Into the Woods is among Sondheim's more decorated and most often produced musicals. It enjoyed a much-lauded 764-performance run on Broadway, took home Tonys for Best Score and Best Book, and has recently been revived to even wider acclaim.
With Into the Woods, Sondheim and author James Lapine have entangled the plots of several famous fairy tales into a single seamless story. Little Red Riding Hood buys her bread from the Baker and his wife, who give a mess of magic beans to Jack (of and-the-Beanstalk fame). These principals cross paths with Cinderella, Rapunzel, various royals, and a Witch whose curse provides the story's through-line. Act One is taken up with building a potion to lift that curse, and is enlivened by various clever twists on some well-known kiddy stories. Cuteness is upended in Act Two, which finds our once-whimsical heroes in a murder-happy melodrama. They're forced back into the woods to slay a vengeful giant's wife who's pillaging the village in retribution for her husband's untimely death. Backstabbing and finger-pointing among the fairy-tale folk stall their happily-ever-after, which eventually arrives along with a morals lesson and a reprise of one of Sondheim's best melodies.
Lapine's dark, perverse view twists our childhood memory of naive, whimsical characters into a group of real people -- a promiscuous prince, a corrupt baker, a snot-nosed Red Riding Hood and a sorrowful Cinderella -- in odd situations held aloft by Sondheim lyrics that blend cynicism, compassion and comedy. In Phoenix Theatre's production, these kooks are brought charmingly to life by a cast studded with some of our best song-and-dance players. Kristen Drathman's Witch is a vivid creation, an uninhibited dame with a wondrous set of pipes and the audacity to upstage the entire company with a broad wink. Her competition comes from every corner: Crooner Nick Cartell conveys perfectly young Jack's wounded, heartfelt innocence; Stephanie Likes is a quivering bundle of snappy hamminess who brings Little Red touchingly to life. And when Beth Anne Johnson applies her powerful, warm voice to "Moments in the Woods," the folds of dark forest seem to fall away. And you'll want to visit Into the Woods if only to hear James Zannelli sing, as both the arrogant Prince and an over-costumed but still resonant Big Bad Wolf.
There are so many pleasurable passages agreeably sung and acted by talented performers that it's tough to single out a few, though I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that D. Scott Withers hammered out his superb lead as the Baker while also working elsewhere: Withers is currently appearing as a principal in Childsplay's production of Charlotte's Web while also directing a colossal Meet Me in St. Louis at the Sundome.
Director Michael Barnard keeps a myriad of quick scene-changes flying, and has wisely kept the dancing -- what there is of it -- simpler than his usually complex choreography. Music director Ron Colvard has assembled a superb (and unfortunately uncredited) orchestra to play some of Sondheim's best and best-known tunes. These elements combine in a show that, despite the ugly backdrop on which it's played out, winds up as an old-fashioned, roof-raising showstopper.
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