Sunset brings a bundle of talent 'into the woods'
By MARILYN JOZWIK
Published on March 5, 2018
The music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim are not meant for the faint of heart, or faint of voice. His tunes take drastic plunges, have non-intuitive transitions and mood swings, while his lyrics come at you rapid-fire.
Nate Adams, director of Sunset Playhouse’s “Into the Woods,” admitted, “Sondheim scared me,” adding, “I got over my fear when I did ‘Assassins’ (Adams played the role of an assassin in the Sondheim musical.)
“Into the Woods” presents even greater challenges in staging and performing than “Assassins,” with its fairy tale settings and costumes, multi-layered tunes and larger than life (or, at least, stranger than life) characters. The book is by James Lapine. Lucky for Adams, he was able to assemble a cast of some of the finest talent around in local theater, many of whom I have enjoyed seeing onstage on a number of occasions.
Adams may have ventured “Into the Woods” with a bit of trepidation, but returned unscathed, able to slay all the demons that the Sondheim music can throw at a cast and crew. In other words, it is a resounding success.
Be careful what you wish for
Sondheim’s quirky story is a mash-up of fairy tale characters – Cinderella (Hannah Esch), Little Red Riding Hood (Ella Rose Kleefisch), Rapunzel (Lydia Rose Eiche), Jack (Simon Earle) and The Beanstalk. Of course, there’s a Wicked Witch (Laura Monagle). They are all brought together by the Baker (Nathan Marinan) and the Baker’s Wife (Carrie A. Gray), who have not been able to conceive a child due to the Witch’s curse. The Witch will reverse the curse, but not without strings: The couple must present a milky white cow, a red cape, a golden slipper and a lock of silky golden hair to the Witch. And so, the couple journey into the woods where they are able to procure these items – with great difficulty – from characters in the aforementioned fairy tales.
At the end of Act I, all the characters seem to have gotten exactly what they wished for: Cinderella and Rapunzel got their men, Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother got freed from the Wolf, Jack got rich – and his beloved pet back -- after climbing the beanstalk and slaying the Giant. And the Baker and his wife? They got their baby.
But all that unravels when the widow of the Giant, a Giantess, starts to wreak havoc on the fairy tale town … and not before many of the relationships begin to fray. There are decisions to be made at every turn, each character displaying a unique sense of morality in the choices. Some of the paths they choose lead to death, infidelity and greed, while other choices lead to friendships and changes of heart.
Fairy tales collide
There is so much going on here, it’s almost dizzying. Fairy tales get turned inside out, unlikely characters meet up and spout lines like, “Witches can be right, Giants can be good, You decide what’s right, You decide what’s good.” Fairy tale characters find that happiness is fleeting, such as Cinderella’s prince, who turns snarky, saying, “I was raised to be charming, not sincere.”
There’s more than a little humor, which this cast carries out so well, such as the Wolf’s (Kevin Gadzalinski) sardonic intoning during a conversation with Little Red Riding Hood: “There’s no way to describe how you feel, when you’re talking to your meal.” Or Cinderella’s flippant remark: “There are times I actually enjoy cleaning.”
Sondheim gives the audience little time to digest what they’ve seen and heard as familiar storybook scenes and characters speak and intersect in unexpected and surprising ways. This cast moves the story along with breakneck speed.
The show’s theme is wrapped in the tender, thought-provoking “Children Will Listen” in which the Company sings: “Careful what you say, Children will listen, Careful you do it too, Children will see.”
This is an exceptionally strong cast throughout with no weak links, especially vocally. Music director Mark Mrozek gets a nice, full sound from five musicians who complement the lyrics without overpowering them. The show is cast wonderfully, each performer having the right look and bearing for his or her character.
Setting the bar very high is Esch, whose Cinderella opens the show with a lovely soprano voice befitting a fairy tale princess. Other characters are also introduced in the “Into the Woods” prologue, each displaying an equally strong characterization. I especially enjoyed Kleefisch’s feisty characterization of Little Red Riding Hood. Marinan has such a sincere quality as the Baker and is nicely paired with Gray. Marinan is especially effective as the Baker sings “No More,” in which he wishes to run away and put an end to all the witches and giants in his life – a metaphor for his troubles.
Monagle’s Witch is also delightfully wicked, as are Cinderella’s Wicked Stepsisters, played by Ashley Patin and Sarah Briana Monahan, who’ve camped up their characters. Earle has a breezy tenor voice and easy-going manner that adds irony to lines such as, “I buried her in a footprint,” referring to a dead character’s grave, i.e., a giant’s footprint.
While other stagings of the show might be more literal, using mostly a woods backdrop, this production chooses more of a metaphor – at least that’s the way I see it. The stage is surrounded by large panels on which are hung – in a helter-skelter manner – chairs, small tables, shutters and other wood items as well as ropes in a jumble of patterns. Perhaps it is symbolic of the chaos that surrounds the characters and the swirling array of decisions they have to make that define them and teach their children. It sort of reminded me of a still life of Dorothy and the swirling objects that surrounded her in the tornado scene in “The Wizard of Oz.” Cleverly, the chairs toward the bottoms of the panels are often used as set pieces and then hung back up.
While it is an intriguing visual, the muddle of stuff tended to muddle the view of the characters as well. A less distracting setting would have spotlighted the characters better and focused on their performances.
Story-high ladders wheeled in to represent Rapunzel’s castle and Jack’s beanstalk, among other settings, work well.
The voice of Jana Rinelli as The Giantess resonating through the theater, as well as the booming sounds of the Giantess’ footsteps, are most effective, giving those scenes a boost of adrenaline.
If you go
Who: Sunset Playhouse
What: “Into the Woods”
When: Through March 18
Where: 800 Elm Grove Road, Elm Grove
Tickets/Info: 262-782-4430; sunsetplayhouse.com