For Some Fee-fi-fo-fun, Go Into the Woods With Jack, A Giant And A Sexy Wolf; Then A Pretty Purrfect Puss In Boots

Many wishes are granted in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's much-loved musical Into the Woods, now playing at Richardson Theatre Centre. Prince Charming finds Cinderella's foot. Rapunzel's haircut frees her from a witch's spell. Jack becomes a killer of giants and procurer of golden eggs.

The nicest wish fulfilled, however, is that this production, directed by Jeff Kinman, finally breaks the double curses of low budgets and low expectations that have kept RTC stuck in community theater mode. This year the 20-year-old semi-professional company moved into a new space, a converted banquet hall rebuilt into a comfy, 110-seat theater. Now they're showing it off in a big way with a cast of strong young singers and able comic actors, plus a seven-piece orchestra directed by Adam C. Wright that's blessed with violins, viola and cello. Dressed in wittily detailed costumes by Suzi Cranford, against multi-level scenery by Steve Wright made to look like giant books whose covers serve as doors and ladders, this Into the Woods offers a thoroughly enchanting evening of entertainment.

The show, for those who don't know it, is a mash-up of classic tales of enchantment by the Brothers Grimm and others. In one crowded corner of a magical forest, unrelated characters keep tripping into each other's plots. And while there are some happily-ever-afters at the end, nothing winds up the way the original versions would have it. Sondheim, who wrote words and music for Into the Woods, and Lapine, who wrote the book, create marvelous, devious twists on the old stories.

Everyone is introduced with his or her wish for something that will change life for the better. Cinderella (played by Sara Geist) wishes to go to the royal festival. Jack (Shane Strawbridge) wishes his pet cow would produce milk so he wouldn't have to sell her. Lonely Rapunzel (Allie Burdette) peeks over a turret, singing "la-la-las" as she brushes corn-yellow tresses and dreams of rescue. Two characters invented by Sondheim and Lapine, the Baker (Jason Villareal) and his wife (Ashlie Kirkpatrick), share a wish for a baby to fill out their family. And Little Red Riding Hood (Lizzie Cochran) wishes she hadn't strayed off the path and run into the Wolf (Corey Whaley) en route to Grandma's house.

Partly inspired by The Uses of Enchantment, psychologist Bruno Bettelheim's popular 1976 study of fairy tales, Into the Woods also takes Freudian pokes at the Grimms' obsession with child abandonment, sexual betrayal, violent death and bloody dismemberment (remember how Cinderella's stepmother carved the stepsisters' feet to fit the slipper?). In the show, Rapunzel becomes the abused and imprisoned child of an ugly and jealous witch of a mother (Elise Libbers). Jack is a dimwitted naif closer to his cow than to his money-hungry mama (Allyn Carrell). And after Little Red is devoured, hood and all, by the sexually predatory Wolf, she survives to sing the dark lament "I Know Things Now," sounding like a sadder but wiser date-rape victim: "Mother said, `Straight ahead,' not to delay or be misled/I should have heeded her advice...but he seemed so nice."

Bettelheim believed that the Grimms' tales helped children prepare for such real-life horrors as divorce and the accidental deaths of pets and loved ones. Dealing with scary situations in symbolic form in lively inventions about giants and ogres could serve as a primer for the dark side of adulthood. Into the Woods—think of it as the anti-Shrek—is full of giants squishing characters willy-nilly under enormous feet and frustrated princes yearning for fresh damsels to save. The show devotes its second act to forcing its characters to grow up. Once-naive Cinderella, Little Red, Rapunzel, Jack and others have to cope with tragedy and learn to be independent. In one of the closing numbers, "No One Is Alone," they sing, "Witches can be right, giants can be good. You decide what's right, you decide what's good."

You won't get all of that from a production that's not as good as Richardson Theatre Centre's. Director Kinman gets pleasing performances from his cast, most of whom succeed at that rare thing of emphasizing the storytelling while singing. Best at this are Kirkpatrick as the Baker's wife, Geist as Cinderella and Cochran as Little Red Riding Hood, all with clear, lovely voices and expressive faces. Playing the Witch, Libbers is actually a better singer and actress when she's under the first act's mask and fright-wig. Once she transforms into the glam-witch, she overdoes the vamp-tramp bit and turns scowl-y and shrill.

Shane Strawbridge played a different sort of comic oaf in Level Ground Arts' sensational Evil Dead: The Musical recently, and here he gives Jack the Giant Killer a Humpty Dumpty silhouette and a slightly evil grin. Bowl-cut cherry-red hair completes the picture of an overgrown man-child more upset over the loss of his cow than the death of his pushy mother.

Corey Whaley doubles in the roles of the Wolf and Cinderella's Prince. He's paired well with the other Prince, played by Aaron White. Their funny duet, "Agony," spells out the woes of being raised "to be charming, not smart."

Ben Phillips gives an uneven performance as the Narrator and Mysterious Man. He's just OK as the former, confused as the latter. And as the Baker, a major role, Jason Villareal emotes and over-gestures, and he wears the thick pancake and drawn-on wrinkles of a high school kid trying to be Willy Loman. Everyone else has little or no makeup—little is needed in this small theater, where performers are so close to the audience they can be heard without amplification.

Minus those little stumbles, this Into the Woods offers almost everything a Sondheim purist could wish for.

Theatre Britain doesn't do many shows anymore, but when they do, it's with zealous devotion to detail. The company's annual holiday "panto" this year is Puss in Boots, made into a whimsical, child-friendly musical comedy by writer-composer Jackie Mellor-Guin, directed by TB founder Sue Roberts-Birch.Actor Ivan Jones is a cool cat in the title role of a trickster who concocts a scheme to guarantee wealth and royal marriage for his master (played, as always in panto, by a girl, Sky Williams). With the help of three pert kitties (Becca Shivers, Charli Armstrong, Christina Neubrand), Puss gets it done, stopping mid-story for some audience sing-alongs (another panto tradition), a black-light trip under the river with glowing puppet fishies and an encounter with a ghost.

Marla Jo Kelly makes Princess Alice a sweet little cookie. And playing the naughty "dame" role as Nanny Knickers, actor Mark Shum gets plenty of laughs working a costume that turns him into a beautiful pink and white human cookie jar.

Puss in Boots is performed on a stage lined with gigantic books (exquisitely painted scenery by Darryl Clement). But here the pages turn to create illustrated backgrounds for each scene. That one-ups the similar set at Into the Woods and closes the book on scenari ex libris.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner

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