Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's review of Beauty and the Beast
In reviewing collegiate shows, it's a frequent occurrence that at least one young performer makes a big impression for the maturity and refinement of his or her talents. The production of Into the Woods which is currently playing at Northern Kentucky University (just across the river from Cincinnati) does showcase some skilled student performers, but it is instead the masterful directorial concept and integration of an ingenious scenic design into that concept which make the mounting especially noteworthy and thrilling.
Into the Woods intertwines various classic fairy tales such as "Cinderella," "Jack and the Beanstalk," "Rapunzel" and "Little Red Riding Hood" with new ones (a witch, and a baker and his wife) as the characters seek to have their wishes come true. They must likewise learn to live with the unforeseen consequences of reaching their dreams and the actions they took to achieve them. The 1987 musical has many fans, thanks to the plethora of productions as well as the video of the original Broadway cast and the 2014 feature film.
The book for Into the Woods by James Lapine is innovative, fast-paced, and full of commentary on the trials and tribulations of parenthood, marriage, and loss. There are also healthy doses of comedy and wit, and the story is well conceived and structurally strong. Act two does turn darker, showing the price that must be paid to make wishes come true, and teaching many life lessons in the process.
The score by Stephen Sondheim features music which is complex and challenging, yet also melodically appealing and accessible. The dense, impactful lyrics demonstrate ingenious wordplay throughout, with insight and intelligence in their meaning. This score is one of Sondheim's most underrated due to the lack of many standout individual songs in comparison to some of his other scores, but it demonstrates the master's skills at their best. Song highlights include the complex opening sequence in which the audience is introduced to most of the main characters, "Giants in the Sky," "Last Midnight" (in which the witch menacingly chastises the other characters for their selfishness and lack of foresight), the hauntingly beautiful "Children Will Listen," and the touching quartet "No One Is Alone."
Director Jamey Strawn and scenic designer Tyler Gabbard have created an intriguing environment for theatergoers and characters alike. As the audience is being seated, they are greeted by a single setthat of a modern public library. The actors, in modern day clothes that hint at what their eventual fairy-tale characters will be, go about some typical actions people do at a library (again with a few hints about their upcoming personalities). Eventually, the library closes, but a boy hides himself inside. Once in the dark and by himself, he opens a book and begins the action as the narrator. The entire show is then presented using the library set. Director Strawn is extremely inventive in his blocking and use of the many nooks, crannies, doorways/entrances, and levels. The humor of the piece is emphasized, with some extra sexual innuendo in spots (Little Red's reaction to the wolf; Jack's infatuation with the harpwhich is played by a female actor) to good effect. Yet, the core of the show, with its serious messages still comes across clearly. Mr. Gabbard's set has many unique surprises in the ways that it doubles as locales for the fairy-tale setting while always maintaining the 2016 library structure. Kudos to both for their inventive ideas and execution!
The limited choreography and movement as staged by Tracey Bonner is effective and appropriate, and the orchestra led by Damon Stevens does a sufficient job with this tricky score (for both instrumentalists and vocalists). The costumes by Jeffrey Shearer are nicely detailed and have theatrical flair, and Terry Powell's lighting includes some appealing visual effects.
The NKU cast is made up of Musical Theatre majors, as well as performers from other programs including Acting, Theatre, and Instrumental Performance, which may explain why some of the solo singing is somewhat unsteady at times. Most impressive from the cast are senior Brandon S. Huber as The Baker, and freshman Taylor Isabel Winkleski as Cinderella. Both provide multi-dimensional portrayals and possess strong, clear singing voices. Guest Artist Charlie Klesa is a local 6th Grader and shows first-rate acting chops for a child of his age as the Narrator. As the Witch, Melissa Cathcart has a bit of an unconventional singing voice, but it's put to effective use here. She attacks the role with fierce commitment as well. Anne Schneider provides many well-suited, nuanced choices as the Baker's Wife, but has a potentially distracting vocal mannerism. Aaron Marshall extracts lots of laughs as Jack, and Amanda Steier is a serious, hard-shelled Little Red Ridinghood. From the remaining ensemble, especially praiseworthy are Andy Burns (a pompous Cinderella's Prince) and Heather Hale, who sings beautifully and supplies many layers to the potentially forgettable role of Rapunzel.
Most ardent theatergoers have likely experienced multiple versions of Into the Woods by this point, so it's wonderful to see a fresh take on the materialone with invention, risk, and solid execution. Even if the cast is a bit uneven in applying their talents to this challenging material, NKU's Into the Woods is certainly worth seeing.
The show continues through May 1, 2016. For tickets and more information, visit www.theatre.nku.edu or call 859-572-5464.