Saturday, May 22, 2010

Theater review: Caldwell's 'Into the Woods' concert comes off splendidly

By Hap Erstein

‭“‬I wish‭ …”

They are the first two and last two words of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s‭ ‬Into the Woods,‭ ‬an audacious and whimsical shuffle of lesson-laden Grimm’s fairy tales.‭

It has long been my wish that a South Florida theater company would take up the challenge of presenting some of Sondheim’s innovative musicals,‭ ‬even though they require large casts of vocally nimble performers and are rarely very popular because of the demands they make on audiences to lean in,‭ ‬listen carefully and think.

Earlier this month,‭ ‬the fledgling Slow Burn Theatre Company produced Sondheim’s‭ ‬Assassins,‭ ‬and‭ ‬for this weekend only,‭ ‬Boca Raton’s Caldwell Theatre performs a concert version of‭ ‬Into the Woods,‭ ‬the brilliant composer-lyricist’s multi-layered fable for our times.‭ ‬It’s the Caldwell’s second concert version in seven months of one of Sondheim’s challenging and rewarding shows‭ – ‬last fall,‭ ‬it was the Pulitzer Prize-winning‭ ‬Sunday in the Park with George.

Like‭ ‬Sunday in the Park,‭ ‬this scores-in-hands,‭ ‬performed-at-music-stands concert opened after an insanely short rehearsal period and the results are nothing less than miraculous.‭ ‬Into the Woods may not be the show to convince those who cannot fathom what all the fuss is about Sondheim,‭ ‬but those who appreciate his complex,‭ ‬emotionally dense work will surely enjoy what director Clive Cholerton and his cast of‭ ‬15‭ ‬intrepid actors are serving up.

It was Lapine’s notion to interweave several familiar fairy tales‭ ‬– Cinderella,‭ ‬Little Red Riding Hood,‭ ‬Jack the Giant Killer and‭ ‬Rapunzel,‭ ‬among others‭ ‬– with a new story about a baker and his wife who yearn to have a child.‭ ‬His aim was to show that between‭ “‬once upon a time‭” ‬and‭ “‬happily ever after‭” ‬is not good and evil or right versus wrong,‭ ‬but a forest of moral ambiguities.

Everyone,‭ ‬it seems,‭ ‬has a wish.‭ ‬Cinderella wants to dress up and attend the festival at the palace.‭ ‬Jack wants to keep his beloved pet cow,‭ ‬who is destined to be sold at the market.‭ ‬Rapunzel wants out of that darned tower.‭ ‬And the baker and his wife want relief from their‭ ‬infertility problem.

It is not too much of a spoiler to note that their wishes all come true,‭ ‬at least temporarily,‭ ‬by intermission.‭ ‬But Sondheim being Sondheim,‭ ‬the characters‭’ ‬happiness proves fleeting,‭ ‬and the second act turns distinctly darker as the old saw about being careful what you wish for is played out.

If the first act ends happily and neatly,‭ ‬it is mere preface for the second act,‭ ‬which takes us beyond the fairy tales into more dense thematic territory as the characters learn about death and the importance of community when they take a perilous return trip into the woods.

Sondheim is in a playful mood in the first act,‭ ‬tossing off a Disneyfied ditty for his title tune,‭ ‬his only ever rap song for a conniving witch,‭ ‬a seductive solo for Little Red’s wolf,‭ ‬a duet for two preening princes and a tongue-twister description of the palace ball by Cinderella.‭ ‬As much fun as they are,‭ ‬however,‭ ‬the score really hits its stride late in the second act with four message-filled,‭ ‬melodic numbers‭ ‬– Last Midnight,‭ ‬No More,‭ ‬No One Is Alone and‭ ‬Children‭ ‬Will Listen.‭

Heading the cast as the Witch is Laura Hodos,‭ ‬who puts a genuinely funny,‭ ‬attitude-rich spin on her dialogue and has plenty of vocal power.‭ ‬Many of the performers are veterans of the‭ ‬Sunday in the Park concert,‭ ‬most notably Wayne LeGette and Melissa Minyard,‭ ‬who were Georges Seurat and his mistress Dot,‭ ‬transformed now into the childless Baker and his wife,‭ ‬the emotional center of the show.‭ (‬If‭ ‬Company‭ ‬was Sondheim’s show about marriage,‭ ‬a subject for which he has no firsthand knowledge,‭ ‬Into the Woods is his parenting musical,‭ ‬another topic for which he has no practical experience.‭)

LeGette and Minyard inhabit the most fully dimensional characters,‭ ‬a nebbish and his pushy spouse,‭ ‬the most likely targets for audience identification.‭ ‬Jim Ballard and Shane R.‭ ‬Tanner are slyly self-centered,‭ ‬creamy-voiced princes and Beth Dimon is back with another maternal role as Jack’s exasperated mom.

Among the new members of this informal musical theater rep company is Margery Lowe,‭ ‬who trills her way through the vocal demands of Cinderella.‭ ‬New to me,‭ ‬but I am eager to see more of them,‭ ‬are John Debkowski as mellow-voiced,‭ ‬but fuzzy-headed Jack and Joseph Reed as the show’s narrator and a role that is necessarily designated‭ ‬only as‭ ‬Mysterious Man.

Surely the hardest working person onstage is musical director and keyboardist Michael O’Dell,‭ ‬whose one-man accompaniment is superb.‭ ‬When the Caldwell wins the lottery,‭ ‬it would be great if they could spend a bit more on a couple of additional musicians and body microphones for the cast.‭ ‬With Sondheim,‭ ‬the lyrics are so crucial,‭ ‬and many of the overlapping nuances got lost with the stationery mikes.

Into the Woods can be a production-heavy show,‭ ‬but illustrator Michael McKeever showed how locations could be established with a few well-conceived slide projections.

Cholerton and company have hit upon a format that is very appealing and relatively affordable.‭ ‬Future concerts will surely investigate other composers,‭ ‬but when the Caldwell is ready for more Sondheim,‭ ‬it should look into presenting his latest musical,‭ ‬Road Show,‭ ‬which happens to take place in part in Boca Raton.

INTO THE WOODS,‭ ‬Caldwell Theatre,‭ ‬7901‭ ‬N.‭ ‬Federal Highway,‭ ‬Boca Raton.‭ ‬Through Sunday.‭ ‬$25-$35.‭ ‬Call:‭ (‬561‭) ‬241-7432‭ ‬or‭ (‬877‭) ‬245-7432.

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