REVIEW: INTO THE WOODS 

with Performance Now Theater Company

by Owen Niland

INTO THE WOODS is a magical piece of musical theater.  More immediately accessible than Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, and down-right child friendly in its First Act, Into the Woods is generally a budding musical theater geek’s first exposure to our generation’s grand master of American musical theater.

I have seen Into the Woods done in a number of venues over the years, from grand-dame theaters to 25 seat black boxes.  Every re-interpretation brings something new to the simple story which intersects the classic Grimm’s fairy tales (Cinderella, Jack & The Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel) with a new fairytale of the Baker and His Wife, undertaking a quest for a witch to break their curse to remain childless.

Performance Now’s Production of Into the Woods, currently playing through January 21st at Lakewood Cultural Center, is a visual stunner.  Director Kelly Van Oosbree has assembled a tight ensemble to tell the Sondhiem’s warped tales under the watchful glow of a full moon dominating the Lakewood Cultural Center stage.  

Drawing heavily from the Fiasco Theater’s 2015 reimagining of the show’s original 1987 production design, the ensemble takes on numerous characters throughout the show, crafting props and costumes with objects found cluttered around the stage.  The orchestra is similarly exposed; sitting dead center is music director Eric Weinstein behind an upright piano, which serves as the anchor to the story’s staging, while a small woodwind and string section sits behind him.  Often the cast members join the music making with percussion and other sound effects to highlight the mood of the scene.  While PNTC’s production never goes as far as to have the actors fully accompany themselves (as Fiasco’s production famously did) it was a nice touch to keep the actors (who remain on stage throughout) engaged in the staging.

The voices on display are some of Denver’s finest.  Matt Lafontaine brings just the right amount of manic idiocy to Jack’s gaping amazement in his discovering “Giants In the Sky”, Jeremy Rill’s Cinderella’s Prince/Wolf is smarm personified with an opera divo’s timbre, Caroline Lohr’s voice shines through her rags as she captures the innocent yet indomitable Cinderella, while ensemble members Miranda Byers, Isabella Duran, Adam Luhrs and Lainey Rigg each add their own unique take to their various characters and voices throughout.  One could tell though that Luhrs was having the most fun onstage playing the long-suffering and mostly mute cow, Milky White.

The heart and soul of Into the Woods is the relationship between the Baker and His Wife, and, as always, the heaviest lifting is left to the Wife.  Here, Baker’s Wife Melanie Horton undertakes her performance with an effortless grace and a compelling voice.  While the production maintains a lively pace through its three-hour running time, the show truly comes to life during her scenes.  Baker Chris Boeckx keeps pace with Horton during their shared scenes, but, without the Baker’s Wife steadying hand, his performance lacked focus.  Lindsey Faltudo’s Witch, although vocally polished, also missed a certain otherworldly quality that makes the Witch’s scenes crackle with excitement.

The First Act of the show is a delightfully comedic endeavor.  Buoyed by the lively score and familiar storytelling, the show clips along to the Act’s triumphant happy ending finale, and, as the Narrator (played by PNTC regular Brian Trampler) says, “those who deserved to were certain to live a long and happy life, ever after!”

The challenge with Into the Woods is the Second Act, where things take a decidedly darker turn.  The stakes are raised, blood is spilled, and in true Sondheim fashion, the pretty music belies something colder, crueler – a world indifferent to wishes and happiness.  It’s here where the production falters.  Although the musicianship and staging remained strong, the interplay among the ensemble became fractious, and one could see the actors struggling to maintain the emotional intensity required by the show’s final sequences.   

In all though, a night with PNTC’s Into the Woods is well worth it.  It is exciting to see a company such as Performance Now stretch its creative wings to craft such a challenging piece for its audiences.

INTO THE WOODS is enchanting audiences now through January 21st at the Lakewood Cultural Center (470 S. Allison Parkway) in Lakewood. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are available or online at www.performancenow.org or by calling 303-987-7845.

PHOTO CREDIT:  RDG Photography

 

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