Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
This is the first production directed by Ten Thousand Things' new Artistic Director Marcela Lorca, and it seemed she had taken on a hefty challenge, with the many characters, interwoven plotlines, and stark changes in tone Sondheim and Lapine baked into their creation. Have no fearthe results are spectacular. This playful, fully accessible Into the Woods delivers its cleverly fractured fairy tales in the first act with charm, wit, and vibrant energy, then in the second act guides us on a journey through fear, loss, guilt, anguish and redemption.
In fact, Into the Woods is a good choice for Ten Thousand Things' mission of serving audiences that typically have little or no access to live theater, by performing at places like homeless shelters, community centers, adult learning programs, and correctional facilities. Its emphasis on stories that are (mostly) familiar, with recognizable characters and readily grasped morals, seems a good port of entry for audiences new to theater. The off-kilter approach to the stories, told with a broad wink, give the show adult appeal in the early going, so that audiences are fully engaged when things turn dark and the lessons change from pat morals to devastating challenges.
Four traditional fairy tales"Jack and the Beanstalk," "Cinderella," "Little Red Riding Hood," and "Rapunzel"and one "new" fairy tale created by Lapine and Sondheim about a baker and his wife who desperately want a child, form the spine of Into the Woods. These five stories are ingeniously cross-hatched so that featured characters from one become minor characters in anothermaking the point that none of our personal stories happen in isolation from those around us. When disaster strikes, they must meld their separate stories into one and forge a united effort against the menace that threatens them, no easy taskas we, in the real world are sometimes called to do, though not always with success.
Lorca's direction keeps the various stories distinct, so that what could be a hard to follow narrative is clear and, at the onset, frothy fun, gradually introducing uncertainties about the "happy endings" we are primed to expect, so that when darkness indeed falls upon this fairy-tale community, it comes as a shock, but one we anticipate. Lorca uses the cast of nine, who all play key characters, as the show's ensemble to create such evocative touches as carrying poles bearing tree-like banners across the stage, weaving their way back and forth as characters like the Baker, the Baker's Wife, and others have to find their way through the "thick" trees. Group scenes which might be chaotic are staged with time-clock precision, as in the rollicking "Your Fault." Lorca also choreographed the production, along with cast member Brian Bose, creating lively dances that reflect the folkloric atmosphere of these stories.
The nine actors all superbly play their assigned roles, in some cases two or three roles. Austen Van is the sharp-tongued voice of truth as the Witch, not a nice person, but one willing to do what must be done. Van's Witch is not a hunched-over crone, but a woman dragged down by life, though still holding her dignity intact. She tenderly tries to keep Rapunzel under her sway in "Stay With Me," tears down the house with a fiery "Last Midnight," and presents a lovely "Children Will Listen" that is both a comfort and a warning. Aimee Bryant as the Baker's Wife delivers her yearnings, her frustrations with a meek husband, and fantasies about life among the rich and royal with warmth and humor. She gives a dynamic reading to "Moments in the Woods," gaining insights as she delivers the song. As the Baker, Jim Lichtsheidl travels a long arc, developing backbone and ready to face what may come, creating strong sympathy for his character. Lichtsheidl and Bryant make a lovable twosome singing "It Takes Two." Sheena Janson Kelley is delightful as Cinderella, who so desperately wants to go to the Prince's ball, only to find she is not so sure that what she wants is a prince after all. She brings warmth, humor, and a lovely voice to her work, with a winning "On the Steps of the Palace."
Rajané Katurah, fresh from a star turn in Park Square's Marie and Rosetta, is delightful as precocious Little Red Riding Hood, who asks the logical questions no one else dares. She may be "little," but she stands up for herself. When she sings of her experience with the Wolf ("I Know Things Now,"), she conveys her character's growing maturity. Ben Lohrberg is terrific as Jack, a simple but good-hearted lad who discovers adventure atop a giant beanstalk, which he relays with great gusto in "Giants in the Sky." Lohrberg also does fine work as the Steward, lackey to the royal family, who casts off responsibility by drolly saying "I don't make policy, I only enforce it."
Elizabeth Reese and Brian Bose as the tale's two princes (Rapunzel's and Cinderella's, respectively) have less swagger, less boom in their voices, than is usually the case for these roles, making them seem less the cartoon blowhards, but rather confused boys in pursuit of manhood. Their comic duet "Agony" is diminished some by their reduced bluster. Reese draws out both warmth and humor as Jack's Mother, doting and put-upon by her son. As the Wolf, she craftily charms Little Red while drooling over her dinner-to-be in "Hello, Little Girl." Bose inhabits the wonderfully crafted costume of Milky White, and though the bovine character has no lines, Bose gives her a delightful physical presence. Tyson Forbes completes the cast as Narrator, Mysterious Man, and Cinderella's stepmother, mincing wickedly as the latter and affecting as the wizened Mysterious Man always poised on the sidelines to move the plot along. He has a stirring voice, and with Lichtscheidl delivers a powerful and poignant "No More," drawing out the very heart of the show.
Longtime Ten Thousand Things music director Peter Vitale does it again, his one-man band magically creating the melodies in Sondheim's musically rich score, along with all the required sound effects, aided here and there by Tyson Forbes on violin and Ben Lohrberg on trombone (which splendidly announces the approach of royalty). Sonya Berlovitz, a frequent Ten Thousand Things collaborator, has designed marvelous costumes with a fairy-tale look and whimsical touches, such as the Wolf's jacket studded with tufts of fur; all are off-kilter enough to assure us that these fairy tales are not what they may seem at first. And, as mentioned above, there is that darling Milky White.
It usually is left unsaid that stage managers are the unsung heroes of any production, but hats off to Nancy Waldoch, Ten Thousand Things' Production Manager, who discretely scurries on the sidelines throughout the performance from one side of the room to another, making props and costumes ready for the cast's quick changes, exits and entrances. The show would be unimaginable without her.
Into the Woods has become an audience favorite and is performed fairly frequently by one company or another, school, or community theater. For some, it is a show that bears seeing again and again. For those who have never seen it, it's time to find out what you have been missing. For those who have seen the show and believe that once is enough, listen up! This Into the Woods is very special, as is usually the case with Ten Thousand Things productions. The intimacy of the theater, the simplicity and elegance of the staging, and the investment by actors who pour their hearts into storytelling, converge to make an Into the Woods that captures the joyful spirit of theater in the best possible way. There are not many tickets left, so don't wait.
Into the Woods, through March 3, 2019, and March 17 - March 24, 2019, at The Open Book, 1011 Washington Avenue South, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and March 7, 2019 - March 16, 2019, at North Garden Theater, 929 West 7th Street, St. Paul. Tickets: $30.00; pay what you can, $10.00 minimum, for those under 30 with ID at the door. Performances at the Open Book and free tickets for all remaining community performances are sold out. For tickets call 612-203-9502 or go to www.tenthousandthings.org.
Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim; Book: James Lapine; Director: Marcela Lorca; Music and Sound Director: Peter Vitale; Choreography: Marcela Lorca and Brian Bose; Costumes: Sonja Berlovitz; Sets: Nick Golfis; Props: Abbe Warmboe; Dramaturgy: Jo Holcomb; Production Manager: Nancy Waldoch; Assistant Director: Alessandra Bongiardina; Production Intern: Fiona Lotti.
Cast: Brian Bose (Cinderella's Prince/ Lucinda/Milky White/Little Red's Grandma), Aimee Bryant (Baker's Wife), Tyson Forbes (Narrator/Mysterious Man/Stepmother), Sheena Janson Kelley (Cinderella), Rajané Katurah (Little Red/Rapunzel/Cinderella's Mother), Jim Lichtsheidl (Baker), Ben Lohrberg (Jack/Steward), Elizabeth Reese (Jack's Mother/Wolf/ Florinda/Rapunzel's Prince), Austene Van (Witch).