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‘In to the Woods’ at Centerstage

March 15, 2012
By Amanda Gunther
Courtesy of DC Metro Theater Arts

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Once upon a time the great Stephen Sondheim tried his pen at fairytales. Cinderella is on the run from the prince, Jack’s beanstalk adventures leave him cow-less, and Little Red Riding Hood is a vicious blood-thirsty wolf-stabbing pessimist. If you think you can handle all that then you’re ready to go Into the Woods at Centerstage. Directed by Mark Lamos as a co-production with Westport County Playhouse, this production of Into the Woods is spell-binding and comical; bringing laughs and heart-warming moments to the audience. With catchy tunes that you’ll be humming long after you leave the theatre this is show for you if you need a little happily ever after in your life.

Scenic Designer Allen Moyer sets a unique presence on the stage with backdrops and enormous trees that creep onto the stage whenever the woods appear; the creeping trees make the woods just a little bit darker and a tiny bit scarier and add the element of fear that all good fairytales carry when the protagonist sets off on a mission or quest. These scenes as they change are merely reflections projected onto a huge stage as the Narrator (Jeffry Denman) moves the set pieces and even little cut outs of the actors around in a diorama that looks exactly like the main stage. This beautiful mimicry creates the illusion that the Narrator truly has control as he is the master of the story.

The costumes were peeled straight from the pages of the Brothers Grimm’s dark and twisted imaginations. Costume Designer Candice Donnelly creates whimsical outfits for these fairytale characters with the slightest hint of darkness and foreboding in all the right places. The evil stepmother wears a greenish gold patterned dress with a high full-neck ruffled collar and shiny black pilgrim-style hat; Cinderella’s beautiful peach gown flows like the gauzy wings of a glittery butterfly; even red’s cloak looks extra bright and bloody. All of these little details combined help make Donnelly’s work a true part of the story, bringing the characters that extra jolt of life.

Donnelly’s finest outfit, however, is worn by the Narrator (Jeffry Denman). A bright lime green waist coat with full tails and dark checkered pants creates a master of ceremonies illusion for this character, a haunting approach for his role. Denman is ever-present on stage, a formidable presence overseeing everything. When he is not telling the story, which he does with gusto and vigor as if truly excited to tell the tale, he is lurking in the shadows, watching his mastery unfold. He never loses focus and uses his deep voice as his main instrument to assist the story on its natural course.

There are many talented voices in the cast and when they all sing together in numbers like “Finale: Ever After” and “Second Midnight” – they blend together as one powerful voice really engrossed in the lyrics, annunciating each one so that the audience catches all of the subtle nuances that Sondheim has written. The voice that perhaps stands out more sweetly than the rest is that of Cinderella (Jenny Latimer). She has the voice of a songbird when recounting her time at the prince’s festival to the Baker’s Wife (Danielle Ferland) during “A Very Nice Prince.” Latimer maintains a level of passion and longing through all of her songs which would make ordinary performers seem almost static but her voice is so touched with emotion and rings out so clearly during “No One Is Alone” that you are almost weeping along with her for all that she has lost.

The voice with the most versatility is perhaps seen in the Witch (Lauren Kennedy.) Dressed as a hideous old crippled hag Kennedy has an un-credited rap about the vegetables in her garden where she keeps the pace of a hip-hop mogul bemoaning her precious garden. But once transformed in Act II we hear powerful belts and pained emotions from Kennedy during “Witch’s Lament” and “Last Midnight.” She executes great use of her physicality maintaining a severely hunched posture when playing the hag with the old crone’s voice to match.

While there are plenty of powerful women throughout the production I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the men. Nik Walker, doubling up as The Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince first slides onto the stage as the hungry wolf; a handsome but devilish character out to make dinner out of anyone he meets on the path in the woods. He is unctuous and exudes a level of sleaze worthy of his cause during “Hello, Little Girl,” flipping back and forth from a dark malicious solo in red light to an up-beat jazzy tune when singing along side Red Riding Hood. (Dana Steingold.) Walker then becomes the stunning and charming prince. His finest moment is a hysterical duet with his Princely Brother (Robert Lenzi) where the two bemoan their true feelings in “Agony.” This duet is absurd, the more ridiculous the claims the more serious the actors make them, creating a comical moment for all involved.

We find comedy in the princes but we find adventure in Jack (Justin Scott Brown.) Even if he isn’t the most worldly boy when Brown’s character sets off on a journey his face is all smiles, eager with anticipation and the rush of excitement that should be found in all young adventurers. Brown has a wonderful solo that features just such excitement, “Giants in the Sky” where he uses his voice to express to the audience that despite being uncertain he’s ready for whatever may come. This excitement is complimented in the performances given by the Baker (Erik Liberman) and his Wife (Danielle Ferland.) While they have their own things to be excited about they share a true relationship on stage; one with loving moments, problems, arguments, frustrations, and each moment they play with one another settles on the audience with a sense of reality. There is nothing contrived or forced in their stage relationship and to find this in a musical is a true blessing. Ferland, who originated the role of Little Red Riding Hood in the original Broadway production,  also has a great interaction with The Prince (Nik Walker) – where they meet by chance and their lives tangle together in “Any Moment.”

The most eye-catching attention-grabbing character in the whole show falls to the tiny shoulders of Little Red Riding Hood (Dana Steingold.) She is feisty and fiery from the moment she sets foot on stage. Looking ever the epitome of the perfect innocent little girl in her little white dress and red cloak, you would believe this of her until she opens her mouth. Steingold is riotously sarcastic, has a spitfire tongue ready to slice and dice other characters in twain and has many laugh lines that she delivers with perfect timing to keep audiences in stitches. Steingold only has one solo “I Know Things Now” but she owns that song with pride, belting a powerful voice from such a tiny character; truly making her mark on the story. A great moment unfolds with Steingold, Cinderella (Latimer), Jack (Brown), The Baker (Liberman), and the Witch (Kennedy) during the song “Your Fault.” Utter chaos ensues as each tries to pin the blame of the giant on the other, Steingold’s voice and attitude being heard above the rest. If you love nothing else about this show, you will love Little Red Riding Hood.

So get your sweets in the basket, get your best cow and magic beans together, and go over the river and into the city to see Centerstage’s production of Into The Woods before there are no more midnights left.

Into The Woods plays through April 15, 2012 at Centerstage – 700 North Calvert Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 332-0033, or purchase them online.

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