By Elaine Liner
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Once upon a time there were two musicals that began with the words "Once upon a time." Into the Woods, now at WaterTower Theatre in Addison, and Brooklyn the Musical, on a national tour stop at the Music Hall at Fair Park, are tuneful fairy tales with twists (and shouts). Each tells overlapping stories of children seeking fathers, handsome princes rescuing damsels and how scary it is to be all alone in the forest of the big bad world (existentially speaking).
But one show is high art and the other is overamplified piffle. One guess which is which.
Into the Woods is musical theater at its artiest, and it's another in a series of spectacularly super-sized productions this season at WaterTower, a professional theater with a loyal crowd of several thousand subscribers, a healthy production budget supported by tax money from the city of Addison and a tendency in the past to play it safe in its choices of plays and musicals. This year's been different, however. Show after show has tested WaterTower's ability to cast, direct, design and stage big musicals and sprawling dramas in fresh and exciting ways. Show after show, they've risen to the challenge. Urinetown the Musical, The Crucible, Take Me Out and now Into the Woods--with each one, WaterTower seems to have gained new strength and greater momentum. Their sets (many, including Into the Woods, designed by the remarkable Clare Floyd DeVries) are stunning and enormous. The casts are deep with Dallas' best actors. At a time when other professional companies are falling back on slight one- and two-person comedies to save money, WaterTower dares to be extravagant, filling its stage with big shows and great talent.
Into the Woods continues through August 20 at Addisonís WaterTower Theatre, 972-450-6232.
The Full Monty continues through August 20 at Theatre Three, 214-871-3300.
Unwieldy to produce, nearly impossible for mere mortals to sing, Into the Woods re-imagines (through James Lapine's witty libretto) some of the brothers Grimm's grimmer tales. It can be an ogre to get right. WaterTower's production, directed by James Paul Lemons, gets almost all of it right. The cast is replete with Dallas theater all-stars: the reliable belter M. Denise Lee as the Witch, always charming R Bruce Elliott as Narrator, comically assured Stacey Oristano (a standout in Urinetown) as Cinderella, achingly beautiful singer-comedian Cara Statham Serber as Stepmother. Joining them are some gifted newbies to WaterTower, including Patrick Pevehouse as Jack (of beanstalk fame) and handsome and abs-fabulous singer-actor Christopher J. Deaton in dual roles as Big Bad Wolf (in sexy leather pants) and Cinderella's Prince.
Where the production trips up a little is in its pacing, which is perhaps a bit too frenetic. Even at three hours, this Into the Woods often feels breathlessly rushed, particularly a key scene in which a major character peels off her mask and reveals a startling new identity. The audience barely gets a second's glimpse of her before the lights go out and intermission starts.
There's also the matter of the big video screen that serves as the major set design element. Images of spooky castles, gnarled trees and snarling wolves--think Maurice Sendak meets Monty Python--dance and swirl behind the actors, sometimes drawing focus away from the action out front.
But above and beyond these quibbles rises the breathtaking lushness of Into the Woods. The score is Stephen Sondheim at his most devious. All of his shows have one or two songs that can either bring down the house or break down the singer. Nearly every one of the 24 numbers in Woods requires multioctave jumps and lightning-fast runs of plosives. And because the songs do most of the work of the complicated storytelling, every word also has to be understood clearly, else the audience can't see the forest of the plot for the dense thickets of Sondheim's lyrics.
And oh, those lyrics. Writing like he's being paid by the word, Sondheim outdoes Shakespeare for testing the tongue with syllables per second. Like this Act One ditty sung lickety-split by the Witch:
He said, "All right,"
But it wasn't, quite,'Cause I caught him in the autumn
In my garden one night!
He was robbing me,
Rooting through my rutabaga,
Raiding my arugula and
Ripping up my rampion
(My champion--My favorite!)
From Denise Lee's lips to our ears with nary a slip. Lips, we salute you.
Once again it's a "once upon a time" scenario, with the ragged Streetsinger (Cleavant Derricks) serving as narrator for the Cinderella story. As both evil stepmother and wicked witch, there's an aging rival singer named Paradice, played by the can't-believe-she's-60 Melba Moore.
Music and lyrics by Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson go no deeper than those painfully banal anthems the Idol finalists sing on the last episode every season. The words "sky," "glory," "fly" and "story" are reprised ad nauseam.