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Into the Woods — Theatre Horizon

imagesJOTH87QJThe songs from “Into the Woods” are infectious.

Several people I know didn’t like Stephen Sondheim’s score when they heard the first time in the current movie version.

I can’t agree. Since seeing Theatre Horizon’s production, I have been singing, humming, or making an earworm of a wide selection of tunes, each one different. The liltingly rhythmic title number is constantly on my mind. “Children Will Listen,” “No One is Alone,” and “No More” have dominated shower and dishwashing repertoires. The witch’s rap about beans, and the general round about fault have also made it to the playlist. And since I am always preaching about “ands” over “ors,” the baker wife’s song about moments in the woods has been a standard since I first heard it in 1987. Oh, and don’t forget “Agony,” another shower showstopper.

You might be able to tell I have been immersed in “Into the Woods” since visiting Theatre Horizon.

For several reasons. One is the glorious voices that make Sondheim’s score resonate while catching all of its wit and mischief. Everyone contributes to the quality, but special kudos go to Liz Filios, who astounds with the tone and power she projects as Cinderella, a character who takes the lead more fully than usual in Matthew Decker’s Horizon production; Leigha Kato, whose strong and true take as Little Red Riding Hood becomes gorgeously lyrical when he dons the golden braids that turn her to Rapunzel; and Ben Michael, whose pure baritone makes the wolf’s “Heilo Little Girl” sinister and salacious and who expresses both agony and the happy coincidence that can happen in the woods with equal zest, the first being bold and ironic, the second being calm and seductive, just as you’d expect from a prince with ample experience.

A second reason is Decker’s fast-moving, creative production.

It may border on the absurd to denote a show that takes almost three hours and seems to include every word and note James Lapine and Sondheim wrote for any rendition of “Into the Wood” but Decker and his cast keep things flowing. Besides, it’s a delight to see how the director will use a file cabinet to become Jack’s beanstalk or employ various props that rest on shelves that creates a broad midpoint barrier on the stage. The changes of scene, the use of materials, and the doubling of several actors for musicians are part of Decker’s show and are amusing.

Then there’s acting. Rachel Camp is superb as the baker’s wife. Her expressions, movements, and overall presence say as much as her excellently delivered lines and meaningfully sung numbers. Camp’s voice is in a league with Filios’s and Kato’s. There is grace and beauty in every note. Kristine Fraelich is correctly ironic and sardonic as the witch. “The Last Midnight” contains some of my favorite lyrics in musical theater literature — You’re so nice; you’re not good, you’re not bad, you’re just nice; I’m not good, I’m not nice, I’m just right; I’m the witch; You’re the world — and Fraelich delivers them with the scorn and contempt they so eloquently spew. Michael Doherty, though capturing Jack’s dimness and making comic hay out of it, shows his intelligence as an actor with some of his sharp deliveries that give a line extra oomph and humor and his facial reactions, which can be priceless. Alex Bechtel is natural and easygoing as Rapunzel’s Prince, the younger brother who has a title and a royal income but no responsibilities as the heir apparent. Bechtel is a fitting partner for Michael in “Agony” and always maintains a tone of ironic amusement. He also shows his versatility by playing several instruments, Steve Pacek anchors Decker’s production as the baker. He shows the character’s vulnerability as well as his evolving courage and resolve. Pacek is another who sings splendidly and brings out the emotion in his songs, especially the angry and gripping “No More.” Charlie DelMarcelle is a master of subtlety as the narrator and father who disappoints and disappears and dies, but he don’t (sic). DelMarcelle takes an entertainer’s delight is making the narrator’s claim to be mysterious almost sardonic while morphing into a wizened old man or a sage with useful suggestions at the stoop of his back or the turn of his head.

Frankly, Kala Moses Baxter, a performer I always look forward to seeing, seems to be in a different show from the rest of the Horizon cast. While playing Cinderella’s stepmother, she is in kilter and in concert with Michael and Bechtel, who play her daughters, and exudes the haughtiness of the woman who prefers to be called “Ma dame.” As Jack’s mother, Baxter, who is black, takes an urban ethnic tone that contrasts entertainingly but is not in keeping with the musical flow that is consistent, even in dialogue, throughout Decker’s production. The performance is interesting, and certainly not off-putting, but Baxter’s reading do stun because they break rhythm and take a different tone from everything else going on. Baxter’s choices are more interesting than wrong, but their difference jars at times.

In general, Horizon’s is an “Into the Woods” to savor. It’s also a good production to compare with the one that lately arrived on Broadway and that played at Princeton’s McCarter theater in 2013. The Roundabout is now presenting Fiasco Productions’s rendition of Sondheim’s musical, a staging that centers strongly on the characters and makes each number an anthem or aria. Like Decker’s production, the Fiasco/McCarter/Roundabout show is atmospheric and depends on the mobility of its set and props and versatility of its actors. The shows differ in focus. Fiasco’s “Into the Woods” uses personality to enhance its storytelling. Decker’s relies more on characterization and flow as a storytelling musical, a musical based on stories.

Both approaches work admirably. Between the Horizon and Fiasco productions and Rob Marshall’s film, “Into the Woods” is well served and looks as if it’s going to be a keeper and frequent visitor to the American theater repertory for time to come.

“Into the Woods” is not a light fairy tale, not even in the first act, at the end of which everyone has part of the wish you hear him or her make in the opening number. Only Cinderella’s stepsisters, who have had pieces of their feet cut off and have been blinded by birds, fare worse at intermission than they did at the initial curtain. Rapunzel’s status at midpoint is debatable, but she is united with her prince, so she has gotten what she wanted, dubious as that may prove to be.

The second act is tougher and more points. In his lyrics for “Do I Hear a Waltz,” Sondheim writes, “Ever after can mean one week,” a line that resonates as you consider “Into the Woods” and see how unhappy its character’s enthusiastically celebrated “ever after” can be.

Through written almost 30 year ago, the second part of “Into the Woods” delves into a common conundrum, how  we as a society, cope with a common threat.

In “Into the Woods,” the society is unorganized. The royal family, the political authority in the show, abandons their responsibility in the wake of danger. Most of them flee to safety. The princes make bold pronouncement about helping, but in the end, finding a solution is purely democratic. It’s left to some people — Cinderella, The Baker, Jack, Little Red Riding Hood, and the reincarnated Old Man — to set things straight.

Lapine and Sondheim get serious in his section of “Into the Woods.” They also opt for the sweet.

It is always interesting to me how in fantasy, whether it be by Tolkien, Martin, Grimm, or Lucas, people are willing to go to battle against a threatening enemy, but in real life, people blanch at stomping out evil.

Part of the reason is debate about who or what is evil. Even when that’s clear, it’s a debate. (Did a State Department spokesperson really say one way to neutralize ISIS is to find the terrorists gainful employment that will take their minds off of religion and destruction? Oh brother!)

Lapine and Sondheim lead the audience to the conclusion that the giant, who comes from a land at the top of Jack’s beanstalk and is willing to decimate all in her wake until she gets what she wants, jack, needs to be fought by group strategy.

Again, this contrasts fantasy and real life. In real life, I would not want to entertain a terrorist or zealot by listening to and acceding to his or her demands.

The case in “Into the Woods” is clearer. Jack is a guilty party. No matter what Sondheim says in the ‘blame’ song, and his outlook is generally sage, “Into the Woods” does sell group responsibility well. It leaves the giant a wide swath of logic, so much so it is possible to side with the witch — You remember, the one who is not good or nice but right — and want to surrender Jack to face his sentence for killing the giant’s husband and stealing her valuables.

Within a musical, Lapine and Sondheim have posed one of the great questions of our time. When and how do we fight a common threat, and does our course of action change when guilt, not accusation or ranting but guilt, is clear and irrefutable?

Hmmm.

Going along with the musical, and Sondheim and Lapine’s decision, the serious section of “Into the Woods” is well-crafted, but I’m sure I would resent Jack if I survived and returned to live in a village with him.

One other question while I’m picking on a fairy tale the entertainment and theatrical value of which override my cavils — Why did Sondheim choose Cinderella’s prince to be afraid of thorns when Rapunzel’s prince was temporarily blinded from falling into a thorn bush? Wouldn’t it have been more consistent for Rapunzel’s prince to shun thickets and for Cinderella’s prince to be wary of dwarves?

Just asking. Although I should probably be more careful about letting you see how my mind works.

Whatever point of view one might have about the preservation of Jack, “Into the Woods” remains diverting throughout its duration.

Decker’s production for Horizon is especially delightful. It goes beyond that. It’s exhilarating because of its energy, it inventiveness, and the quality of those voices. I would gladly attend a cabaret performance by Liz Filios, Rachel Camp, Leigha Kato, or Ben Michael.

Filios and Kato have such wonderful command of their vocal instruments. Every note Filios uttered was charming. Beyond the projection of her voice, her tone is amazing. Even in passages that require concentration on diction, Filios mastered Sondheim’s phrasing and delivered her songs beautifully. Sudden notes came out as true as those Filios had time to prepare for. Hers was a glorious performance that will be remembered for a while.

Rachel Camp’s acting enhanced her lovely singing and made the baker’s wife a welcome and dominant presence. Camp’s timing in getting in lyrics such as “The spell in on our house” is impeccable. She makes you listen closely to all the baker’s wife has to say, whether it’s via song or dialogue.

Kato brings out the spirited nastiness in Little Red Riding Hood in a way that earns Steve Pacek’s baker extra laughs when he says something akin to, “Trust me, that little girl does not need protection. She can take care of herself.”

Krissy Fraelich craftily shows the superiority the witch feels over everyone in the village, even when she is devoid of powers that make her magical. Fraelich’s performance goes beyond pointed, authoritative singing of the wonderful numbers Sondheim provides the witch, including “Children Will Listen,” ‘Stay With Me,” and “The Last Midnight” to showing the logic and goading quality of the witch. The wit with which Fraelich invests her character shows how good a time she is having in playing her, a good time that benefits the Horizon audience generously.

For all of its length, Decker’s “Into the Woods” goes smoothly. It is fun to see what he can do with everyday objects, using newspaper to fashion Cinderella’s stepfamily’s wigs and creating Rapunzel’s tresses by using a garland from a which the narrowest of woolen cords emanates. This is a rousing rendition of this venerable show, I started this review by saying Sondheim’s songs are infectious. I end by congratulating the entire Horizon cast and crew for mounting a production that is equally long-lasting and that provided images that will be remembered and appreciated in time to come.

Amanda Morton has such a light touch, she and her orchestra keep all moving briskly and beautifully. Morton steps from her piano to take a random line. Rachel Camp on the harp, Liz Filios on the cello, Ben Michael on drum, and Alex Bechtel on various instruments join the band at key times. Maura Roche’s set put myriad props and other items the performers would need in easy reach while the foreground suggested a village, the baker’s shop being as cramped but as cozy as described. Nick Kourtides’s sound design brought the danger of the woods to life and the giant immediately ominous. Lauren Perigard’s costumes were creative, especially her cape for Little Red Riding Hood, which looked like something a grandmother would make rather than the traditional red cotton cloak. Mike Inwood’s lighting enhanced many a moment and added to the creativity of Decker’s production.

“Into the Woods” runs through Sunday, March 1 at Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb Street, in Norristown, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Sunday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. A 7:30 Industry Night show is set for 7:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 23. Tickets range from $46 to $39 and can be obtained by calling 610-283-2230 or by visiting www.theatrehorizon.org.

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