Fractured Fairy Tales

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.

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,

Raping 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.

To get from the artistic elegance of WaterTower's Into the Woods to the clunky cutesiness of the Summer Musicals' Brooklyn the Musical (mourn we now the missing colon), buy a one-way fare to mediocre-ville. It takes longer during rush hour to ride the F-train from Times Square to Brooklyn than it does for this five-person show to tell its shallow story of a young singer named Brooklyn, played by 19-year-old American Idol runner-up Diana DeGarmo, trying to find fame, fortune and her long-lost folk singer father (Lee Morgan).

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.

DeGarmo, as pretty and pudgy as a summer plum, sings at two pitches, loud and louder. And though she throws herself into each number like she still thinks she has a chance against Fantasia Barrino, you'll find yourself wishing a big foot would drop out of the sky and squash her flat.

As fairy tales go, the one in The Full Monty, now getting a mighty good production at Theatre Three, is a beaut. Six unemployed steel mill workers in Buffalo decide to earn quick cash by taking it all off in an amateur striptease show for one night only. Only trouble is, they can't dance, they're built more like Clydesdales than Chippendales and they're not really sure than can go all the way, no matter how loud the ladies scream.

Yes, a Cinder-fella story in the works and one with plenty of charm, lots of laughs and the same sweet message about self-esteem and body image that made the original Brit movie version a surprise hit in 1997.

The musical, directed at Theatre Three by Michael Serrecchia, works from a book by Terrence McNally (staying loyal to the film's best bits) and music and lyrics by David Yazbek, composer of the current Broadway hit Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. The R-rated content gets a little smuttier than the flick, but it's all in good fun.

Like WaterTower, Theatre Three's been taking some nice risks lately. With The Full Monty, they're not only chancing the defection of the stiff old waxworks who buy season tickets by telling dick jokes and parading six naked men, they're in great danger of actually shaking off their image as Dallas' musical theater mausoleum by casting the adorable Gary Floyd in the lead role of struggling divorced dad Jerry Lukowski.

Floyd, a cabaret crooner and songwriter discovered by Contemporary Theatre of Dallas for Pump Boys and Dinettes a few seasons back, has become an in-demand musical theater star in Dallas and elsewhere (he did Uptown's hit Aida last spring and then wrapped a run of Pump Boys in Denver just before starting Monty). He's handsome and can act, his voice has a sexy, raspy edge to it, he looks good with his shirt off--half the fun of watching Full Monty is waiting to see him peel in the finale, "Let It Go."

OK, enough of the hubba-hubba. But The Full Monty without a good-looking bloke in the lead would be kind of a letdown. Backing him up with their bare backsides (at least in the big reveal) are five terrific other guys: Coy Covington as exec-type Harold Nichols; Wilbur Penn as "Horse," the guy who doesn't quite live up to the moniker pants-wise; Charles Ryan Roach as chubby, insecure Dave Bukatinsky; Theo Wischhusen as pigeon-chested security guard Malcolm; and Andy Baldwin as Ethan, the clumsy dancer with the biggest...ideas.

This is another musical with lots of good people onstage and plenty of great tunes to hum on the way home. Not to mention the hubba-hubba.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner