Regional Reviews: Cleveland & Akron
Into the Woods
Also see Mark's review of The Phantom Tollbooth
Once upon a time, two men wrote a musical play about Little Red Ridinghood, Rapunzel, Cinderella, Jack and the Bean Stalk, a witch and a baker and his wife. Most of the elements of those familiar stories are linked together with narrative, dialogue and music in the first act of Into the Woods. By the end of the first act, everyone is living happily ever after. However, in the second act, the writers meditate on what happens after "happily ever after." When things couldn't get better, they start getting worse. Characters go into the woods to find the solutions to their problems, or the trip into the woods is a symbolic journey to find truth within themselves. Quickly, the characters learn that each is the source of his/her problems and each must find his/her own solutions. A good psychiatrist or psychologist should join the characters on stage.
Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (book) wrote this show, which received Tony Awards and many other awards. What are the problems with this production? Starting at the beginning, the stage set is ridiculous. The proscenium arch is covered with piano keyboards. About ten chandeliers hang over the stage. Keep in mind the action of this show is set in the woods. The guts of pianos hang on the left and right of the playing area. Upstage, a curtain made to resemble chords/wires of pianos is suspended from the ceiling. This piano motif has nothing to do with the storyline of Into the Woods.
On stage, the performers accompany the show with various musical instruments. The music director (usually Evan Rees, but Sean Peter Forte at the performance I attended) plays a piano that is mounted on a short platform onstage. The platform is rotated in order to get the piano sounds out to the audience.
The cast is filled with superior singers and actors. Darick Pead displays his exceptional talents as three characters, showing his strength as Rapunzel's Prince. With a window curtain over him he plays Florinda, one of Cinderella's stepsisters. And he plays Milky White, a cow, with a clanging cow bell and an occasional "Moo." Anthony Chatmon II plays a variety of characters, but is at his best as the Wolf, pursuing Little Red Ridinghood. He sings the lecherous song, "Hello, Little Girl," with all of the lust a wolf might need. Chatmon, also, plays Lucinda, the second of Cinderella's stepsisters, and he is the dashing prince for Cinderella.
Two actors play the Witch. On opening night Vanessa Reseland was on deck in the role She has a beautiful singing voice and a powerful ability to mix evil and good. Eleasha Gamble brings the Baker's Wife to the stage. (Why doesn't this character have a name?) Gamble has a great singing voice and the ability to play comic scenes. Philippe Arroyo looks to be the youngest actor in the show. He has a beautiful singing voice and plays Jack (as in Jack and the Beanstalk) with proper bumbling skills. He doesn't get to do much as the Stewart to Cinderella's Prince, but again, he has plenty of action and physical comedy.
Everyone in the cast has great talent. However, the directors haven't moved that talent to make this a successful production. Certainly, a production of this show shouldn't last so long. Other productions I've seen moved like the wind, at 30 minutes less, and held the audience mesmerized.
Into the Woods, at the Connor Palace Theater in Cleveland through January 29, 2017. More information at www.playhousesquare.org, 216-241-6000 or 866-546-1353. For more information on the tour, please visit www.intothewoodsontour.com. Audiences of the Broadway Series may next look forward to The King and I (February 7 - 26, 2017) and other shows throughout the spring.
Music and lyrics: Stephen Sondheim