by Harry Haun
It’s getting so you can’t see the forest for the woods—or, rather, the Woods. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s scrambled storybook musical of 1987, Into the Woods, is still among the most performed in Sondheim’s canon. Maybe it’s never been away.
Currently you can find it revived (through July 13) at the Barrington Stage Company. It has also become a popular attraction at nursing homes and community centers. And Monday July 8 it returned for a one-night-only gala at Town Hall, right across West 43rd from The Stephen Sondheim Theater, benefiting the Cleveland Musical Theatre.
It was a production short on frills but strong on talent, and it brought out a full house. Clearly, the audience it attracted didn’t require any magic beans to transport themselves beyond the music stands and hand-held scripts of the game cast.
Dyed-in-the-woods Sondheim-ites were out in force. A 60-ish gentleman two seats from me merrily mouthed those tricky, tongue-tangling lyrics along with the cast.
Into the Woods is a masterful and melancholy mashup of the stories we were all told in our childhood–“Children Will Listen,” indeed—and ensemble-casting made sure the key ones are present and accounted for: Little Red Ridinghood skipping off to grandmother’s, Rapunzel with the tower-length tresses, Cinderella pining for a night at the royal ball, Jack with his beanstalk. To this familiar assemblage, Lapine invents his own storybook characters–a baker and his wife–to tie them all together. They have been cursed with infertility by the witch next door because his father stole vegetables from her garden. To remove that curse, she requires four things: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold. The first act ends with a Happily Ever After. Then comes act two—and trouble.
Lapine’s characters who interact with our fairy-tale friends are the play’s primary movers-and-shakers. As written, the best role in the show is the baker’s wife. Joanna Gleason was the Tony-winning template, and in this reading Kate Shindle scores strongly in the part. A former Miss America who can act and the current President of the Actors’ Equity Association, she brings heart and compassion to the part.
Her husband is so earnestly and kindly put forth by Tony Yazbeck you never notice he’s not dancing. (He’s the only person to win both the Astaire and Rivera awards.)
Alice Ripley likewise had a field day as the witch, potent when ugly and powerless when pretty, although she seemed to be having a slight balancing act with her witch’s hat. There was only a token attempt to costume the actors, with the notable exceptions of the black-coated, big bad wolf of Matt Bogart and the crimson-caped Little Red Ridinghood of Caitlin Houlahan, who skillfully and subtly managed to catch the bratty, annoying qualities which that character always had in the show.
A total delight and sometimes touching, Betsy Wolfe practically shined as Cinderella, who comes to realize she doesn’t exactly love the prince that her slipper ensnared.
As the slow-witted Jack who sells his friend-and-cow, Milky White, for magic beans, Jordan Matthew Brown struck the right notes, and the hilarious Pamela Myers spent some of her superb comic timing as his exasperated and disapproving mom.
Zach Adkins as Rapunzel’s Prince and John Riddle as Cinderella’s Prince—brothers and philanderers both—managed to get off the evening’s musical highlight, singing about the “Agony” of their unattainables (namely: Snow White and Sleeping Beauty).
Julie James did a lovely job of narrating the story until the characters turn on her and drive her from the building. Also contributing to the musical merriment: Lee Wilkof, Maureen McGovern, Kaley Ann Voorhees, Susan Blackwell and Kristy Cates.
Miles J. Sternfeld, artistic director of the Cleveland Musical Theatre, directed the gala and had pretty smooth sailing with the pros he picked. There were a few missed cues —even the wooden replica of Milky White was late—but the audience laughed it off.
Photos by Katy Beth Barber