Comtra Theatre opened their 34th anniversary of community theatre productions with Stephen Sondheim and James Lupine’s Into The Woods January 6th.
Into The Woods was first produced on Broadway in 1987 and won several awards including the Tony for book and score. Most people will be familiar with the story; a mash up of characters and plots from fairy tales that include Rapunzel, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk. The characters and story come together around the Baker and his wife’s deal with the Witch in their quest to start a family.
The central theme of Into The Woods can be summed up simply. Be careful what you wish for and the consequences of wish fulfillment. Unfortunately, living life happily ever after doesn’t always work out as you had hoped. The show brings a strong dose of responsibility and morality as the character’s come to terms with the aftermath of the wishes they have been granted and painfully unravel with disastrous results.
We remember these stories as nursery rhymes and the rhyming convention is used not only in the musical numbers but also in spoken songs. In many cases the songs serve as asides that convey the characters thought processes. The speech patterns are deliberately not natural, which forces you to pay close attention to get the plot nuances.
The Comtra Theatre is a beautiful intimate “in the round performance” space seating an audience on the order of one hundred fifty. Its performance area is roughly eighteen by twenty feet and this show has a big cast. It is a tall order to make the staging work effectively.
Director Johnny Gallagher does a nice job in making it all fit and flow in the intimate space. The limited stage space also forces elimination of all scenic elements. A few boxes, a pushcart and a ladder and some props are all that’s needed to make the show work well.
Milky White, the cow, is a key element of the production. Putting a human in a cow costume just never really works. Gallagher instead cast a young boy, Jake Scheib, as the cow. He is dressed in khakis and a long sleeve white dress shirt, and he was instantly ‘the cow’ to me. Jake did a great job conveying the cow’s emotions as he is traded around. I never was distracted by a tacky cow costume.
Another great solution was LaMar Lesters’ Wolf; Gallagher solved the costume issue with a wolf hand puppet rather than a full costume (pictured above). I loved Lester’s facial expressions and gestures as he stalks Red Riding Hood. Nicole Tomino as Little Red Riding Hood conveyed the effect combination of innocence and sensuality to both the Wolf and Jack.
The Baker and his wife do the heavy lifting of moving the story along. Olivia and Jeffery have nice married couple chemistry (pictured below). Just in case you get lost in the woods, Tracy Rudzinski as the Narrator gets you back on track and keeps the ladder moving to the right place at the right time. This is no small task as she is dodging a dozen or so characters on a small stage.
The two dashing, spoiled and yet debonair Princes are superb in the show’s second best known song “Agony”. Clarence Seybert and Joe Moeller nail it in this fun number.
This is really an ensemble show, and this cast of actors works well together. Singing voices are fist rate, including the scary Lani Cataldi as the Witch and Shelly Schuster as Cinderella. Gallagher’s direction and staging is perfect for the intimate space of the Comtra, yet physical comedy is not skimped on; it’s subtle, not over the top and deliciously funny at times.
Now I have one wish for this production that we saw on opening night. The “orchestra” is composed of two keyboards by which two musicians can recreate the fully orchestrated score. This provides for a much richer audience experience that just accompaniment by a piano only, EXCEPT when the music by necessity is amplified and the singers are not and the balance is way off. It was virtually impossible to discern dialog over underscoring or vocals in songs, particularly if the actors were facing the opposite side of the stage. No need to mic the actors, just lower the music volume. It was a shame to miss those great voices. That’s a minor adjustment, and hopefully the sound balance improves to match the performances.
Special thanks to the Comtra Theatre for our courtesy tickets.
Into the Woods runs at the Comtra Cultural Center weekends through January 21st. For tickets and more information, click here.
Photos courtesy of Jennifer Scheib