Theater Review: Get ‘Into The Woods’ at DeSales’ Act 1
“Into The Woods” is a profound, deeply-moving musical that defies categorization, description, and even comprehension.
The Tony Award-winning musical (including best score: Stephen Sondheim, music and lyrics, and best book: James Lapine), which debuted in 1987 on Broadway, is complex and challenging even for the most devoted of theater-goers.
Let the university seminars have a go at explaining the nuances and takeaways of “Into The Woods.” Let this review serve notice that you should not miss the DeSales Theatre Act 1 production of “Into The Woods,” through May 6, Main Stage, Labuda Center for the Performing Arts, DeSales University, Center Valley.
Act One traditionally concludes its season with a musical and in Anne Lewis’ sensitive, thoughtful and, yes, fun, direction, we are joyfully reminded that “Into The Woods,” a mash-up of the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault fairy tales, is joyfully entertaining.
The production values of the Act 1 “Into The Woods” are Broadway-quality in Labuda’s intimate three-quarter thrust Main Stage where there’s nary a bad seat in the house.
All the better to see the picture book pop-up set by Scenic Designer Will Neuert, with opening scenes of delightful two-dimensional backdrops for Cinderella, Jack, and the Baker and his Wife, giving way to a center frame opening with stair backdrop and backlit trees and sky surrounded by the deep, dark woods. One tree tower cleverly opens to reveal Rapunzel’s Tower.
Onto this immense-appearing setting are cast shadows, and leaves and flitting birds, and backlit scrims that reveal certain key scenes (The Big Bad Wolf inside Grandma’s House) and splashes of purple and green and red and gold perfectly in synch with the emotions of the songs and the characters by Lighting Designer Eric T. Haugen.
When it’s time for the birds to sing, the sturm to drang, and the giant’s high-heeled boots to crash and her voice to glower (voiced magnificently by Jillian Vinciguerra), the theater’s Sensurround-like sound shakes the seats and you in them, courtesy of Sound Designer Justin Propper.
The Sondheim score is brillantly rendered by Music Director Nancy Moser Collins, Conductor Nathan Diehl, and the 12-member pit orchestra.
The cast cavorts, prances and dances, especially in the finale with robust direction by Choreographer Tim Cowart.
Artistic Director Dennis Razze, and Stage Manager Caroline Sylvia keep the production perking.
The outfits, attire and get-ups are fanciful, and more cute and fetching than over-the-top by Costume Designer Amy Best.
Superb production values nothwithstanding, at the heart of the Act 1 producton are a bevy of heartfelt performances by DeSales’ theater department students who are clearly up to the task of singing Sondheim splendidly and rendering Lapine knowingly. No easy task.
From the frenetic “into The Woods” opening number by the charming 19-member cast to the soothing finale, “Children Will Listen,” by the Witch (a riveting Amy Johnson) and Company, the Act 1 production astounds, enlightens and satisfies. Many of the actors have Broadway-ready voices. Their acting, too, is Broadway-calibre.
While each actor and each number deserves merit, quite a few stand out even above the rest: “Agony,” a hilariously droll duet by Cinderella’s Prince (Jayce Meredith) and Rapunzel’s Prince (Andrew Scoggin); “It Takes Two,” with tongue-in-cheek glee by The Baker (a robust Bo Sayre) and Baker’s Wife (a gamine Alexandra Séman): “Ever After,” with earnest earnestness by the Narrator (a perfectly earnest Matt Smaldone), and what has become a cabaret standard, “No One Is Alone,” with loving tenderness by Cinderella (an outstanding Meaghan Rossi), Little Red Ridinghood (a delighful Zoe Fox), the Baker and Jack (a right sprightly Matt Wolfinger).
The wonderful characters include: Cinderella’s Stepmother (Taylor Congdon), Florinda (Cathy Ritter), Lucinda (Renee McFillin), Jack’s Mother (Erin Sullivan), Cinderella’s Mother (Jillian Vinciguerra), Mysterious Man (Gabriel Moses), Wolf (Jayce Meredith), Rapunzel (Megan Fry), Granny (Liz Scully), Cinderella’s Father (Matt Barger) and Steward (Ethan Larsen).
“Into The Woods” is sprinkled with words of conventional wisdom, bon mots scattered randomly like the falling leaves, stated plainly and matter-of-factly by the characters in direct address to the audience.
Act 1 “Into The Woods” director Anne Lewis makes Sondheim wise without sacrificing the wisecracking Lapine. Lewis works both sides of the musical: the comedy and the pathos, the silly and the serious, the questions and the answers. Lewis captures the malevolent whimsy that is at the core of the Sondheim oeuvre: his anguished yet somewhat hopeful take on the human condition.
By the time the Company sings “No One Is Alone” you realize you, too, can do this: You can go “Into The Woods.” We all do, once upon a time or another.
Tickets: Labuda Center for the Performing Arts box office, DeSales University, 2755 Station Avenue, Center Valley; desales.edu/act1; 610-282-3192