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NextStop Theatre Company Into the Woods

By • May 5th, 2014 • Category: Reviews
Into the Woods
NextStop Theatre Company: (Info) (Web)
Industrial Strength Theater, Herndon, VA
Through June 1st
2:30 with intermission
$30-$32 (Plus Fees)
Reviewed May 4th, 2014

In Volume 2 of the Broadway musical satire series Forbidden Broadway appears a song called “Into the Words,” kidding Stephen Sondheim’s propensity for verbal gymnastics. I don’t know whether NextStop theatre company’s director and scenic designer (Evan Hoffman and Steven Royal, respectively) for Sondheim’s Into the Woods ever heard the spoof song, but they’ve done it more than one better. Entering the Industrial Strength Theater, the audience is greeted by an entire two-level library, complete with a metal spiral staircase between the levels, calling to mind Henry Higgins’ study in My Fair Lady. Only a few bare trees in the foreground suggest the presence of literal woods. For anyone familiar with the traditional staging of the show, the effect is startling: looks cool, but what are they going to do with it?

Literalism is, of course, not the point of Into the Woods, as it blends Sondheim’s and James Lapine’s takes on several traditional fairy tales; a made-up story about a baker, his wife, and a witch; and a darker story about what happens to the characters after the “happy ever after” ending of the first act. In his comments on the show in his book “Finishing the Hat,” Sondheim recounts an incident in which a group of patrons left the theater after Act 1, believing the show was over. Something similar appeared to happen on a smaller scale at NextStop Sunday afternoon. Suffice to say, much of the development of the show’s major themes — relationships between parents and children, community responsibility — as well as the most inventive and creative uses of the library set, occur after intermission.

Into the Woods is very much an ensemble show, a feeling emphasized by the fluid and sometimes intricate movement of the cast in the larger numbers. NextStop’s actors admirably filled both the larger and smaller roles. As the Witch, Priscilla Cuellar was possessive of her child, Rapunzel; vindictive toward the Baker, his father and his wife; and generally angry at the world. Cuellar gives her role a destructive energy but also has moving moments of sadness and loss concerning her child, singing tenderly in songs like “Stay With Me” and the “Witch’s Lament.” She belts in “The Last Midnight” and is more reflective in the “Children Will Listen” portion of the Act Two Finale. (Interestingly, the NextStop production omits the optional duet for the Witch and Rapunzel, “Our Little World,” Sondheim’s attempt at filling in the mother-daughter relationship.) Cuellar hits whatever emotional tone a given scene or song requires, and she manages well her physical transition from old crone to voluptuous glamour queen.

John Loughney and Katie McManus stand out in the key roles of the Baker and his wife. Sondheim comments in “Finishing the Hat” that he and Lapine intended these characters to represent the feelings and concerns of a modern urban American couple who just want a family and a peaceful life, but who find themselves in a fanciful medieval setting involving witches, giants, and princes. “I’m in the wrong story,” the Baker’s Wife comments in Act 2.

McManus makes the wife’s story one of the most gripping in the play, as she transforms from a wife longing for a baby to a full partner in the couple’s quest to someone who finds a balance between the “or” and the “and” in life, between the reality of daily life with her family in the village and living in the moment in the woods. McManus makes the song in which the Baker’s Wife articulates that transition, “Moments in the Woods,” the highlight solo of the production, not only with her strong, clear voice but with her face and body registering her character’s rapid changes of thought and emotion as the song proceeds.

Loughney teams well with McManus in “It Takes Two,” as the Baker discovers that his previous assumptions about his marriage don’t work so well in the woods. As his character deals with confusion and loss in Act 2, Loughney’s characterization gains depth, and his rendering of “No More” is superb, not only vocally but in showing his exhaustion and near-despair. Despite his own grief, he helps Jack, Cinderella, and Little Red form a new community to deal with a marauding giant and the changed world the characters now inhabit, in the beautifully sung “No One is Alone.” When the original production of Into the Woods opened in 1987, there was some criticism of this song as simply being a reworking of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” written by Sondheim’s mentor, Oscar Hammerstein. While both involve giving comfort in painful situations, “No One is Alone” is a far more complex lyric, emphasizing the need for, and inevitability of, community, notwithstanding loss and error. It also includes a note of warning: “Careful, no one is alone.”

Jack (Sean McComas), the adventurous boy who climbs a beanstalk and kills a giant, does not have as great an opportunity for character growth as many of the others. He remains a boy who arouses the protective instincts of others, even when the Witch wants to feed him to a vengeful giant. McComas nails his exuberant first act song, “Giants in the Sky,” moving quickly from one side of the second level of the set to the other, and then on down to the playing area floor.

Cinderella (Brittany Martz) does get a longer character arc, from an oppressed girl to the dazzled wife of a prince to a courageous fighter in the war against the giant to disappointment in her wandering husband to becoming a nurturing member of the renewed community, taking on the care of the Baker’s baby. Martz traverses the arc with nary a misstep. Her songs, including “A Very Nice Prince,” “On the Steps of the Palace” (which reveals that this Cinderella is a very smart girl, deliberately leaving her shoe behind so that the Prince can decide whether to pursue her), and her portion of “No One is Alone” are performed as well as anyone could ask for, both in terms of sound and character.

Nora Palka is a very talented singer and actor, and she gives an excellent performance as Little Red Riding Hood. This was a point, however, at which I question director Hoffman’s choices. Palka’s Little Red comes off as a young adult rather than a precocious early adolescent, in consequence losing some of the nuances that make the character a delight. Her first act number with the Wolf (Scott Gaines), “Hello Little Girl,” is more explicitly about sex than usual — no subtext here. The Wolf is a hottie, and Little Red isn’t far into the number before she is running her fingers down his abdominal six-pack. Gaines sings his part of the number in an appropriately ravenous way.

Gaines also plays Cinderella’s prince, which gives him the most delicious comic line of the show: “I was brought up to be charming, not sincere.” He and Scott Harrison, who plays Rapunzel’s prince, team up tunefully in “Agony” and its reprise. Hoffman’s direction calls for them to act out their stylized masculinity in near-melodrama fashion, and their mirror-image blocking adds to the song’s comic effect.

Hoffman made the Narrator (Ryan Manning) a much more active part of the proceedings than in many productions, moving from one portion of the set to another, interacting with and reacting to the characters at multiple points, handing them props etc. In general, he was a much more noticeable and relevant Narrator than one sometimes sees. Danny Trippel was a fey, excuse-making bureaucrat of a Steward. The only relatively weak link in the cast was Blakeman Brophy as The Mysterious Man, whose performance was flat and not all that mysterious. He also suffered from being given an unfortunate wig.

The clarity of the performances permits an appreciation of some of the subtleties of Sondheim’s lyrics. For example, there’s “nice,” used in contrast to “good” by three female characters. Cinderella, as she is being mistreated by her mean girl sisters, recalls that while her mother told her to be good, her father told her to be nice. She comments later that “princes are nice” and has an entire song about “A Very Nice Prince.” Little Red notes that the Wolf seemed nice and that “nice is different than good.” In “The Last Midnight,” the Witch has the last word on the subject: “You’re so nice. You’re not good, you’re not bad, you’re just nice. I’m not good, I’m not nice, I’m just right.” While it wouldn’t be fair to say that Sondheim has an overtly feminist agenda, this language acts to emphasize that niceness — as a feminine trait valued by men in the patriarchal society of these folktales — may well limit the ability of women to be independent moral actors. And being responsible on one’s own for moral choices is of supreme importance to Sondheim in Into the Woods.

Franklin Coleman’s lighting design made extensive use of tightly focused area lighting, with often rapid cuing as characters moved about the set. There was a nice gobo effect of leaves projected onto the floor, an ominous red light from off stage left during the wolf scene, and a bright green light off stage right on the second level for the Witch’s exit at the end of “The Last Midnight.” Kathy Dunlap’s costumes were a visual treat: among others, lovely ball gowns for Cinderella and her sisters; a jacquard look for the princes; dark enveloping swirls of cloth for the Witch when we first see her (augmented by a suitably hideous upper face mask), then a low-cut black sparkly gown with a cape to match after she makes her transformation; a nice wolf fur stole for Little Red; a maroon velvet outfit for the Steward. Props, from all the books in the library (collecting which must have been a prodigious chore) to the very similar scepters of the Steward and Witch to items like Little Red’s goodies and her intimidating knife, are well-chosen.

Eric Kritzler’s sound design was a tale of the good and the bad. The good was in the well-chosen and well-timed effects, whether giant footsteps, a character getting squished, the cow electronically dying, baby cries, or twittering birds. The bad was the volume level of the amplification for the Elisa Rosman’s top-notch orchestra and the actors. It was LOUD, hardly necessary in a house where no one sits more than eight rows from the stage. Note to NextStop: a prudent audience member brings earplugs to a heavy metal concert. At a performance of a Broadway musical, thoughts of needing ear protection should not occur.

And what lovely things the production does with that library. The Narrator takes a book from the shelves to begin telling the story. Cinderella’s birds are books that are lowered from the ceiling area and flap open. Even Jack’s cow, often a two-dimensional cutout, becomes a book cart. In the second act, books fall out of the shelves as the giant attacks the village (the technical accomplishment of shaking the books loose on cue is impressive). The tree that topples to kill the Baker’s wife becomes a bookcase partly falling over and dumping its load of books. Actors have to make their entrances stepping over piles of fallen books, the debris of war. At the end of the second act, cast members come on stage and replace the fallen books on the shelves, as order is restored to their world, and most of the cast picks up a book to read until they must come downstage to sing their part of the finale.

It’s all compelling visual theater, and a very refreshing approach to staging the show, but it succeeds in being a good deal more than that. It says, to me at least, that the sum of our culture is contained in the stories we tell, and that the stories we tell — whether or not contained in physical books — make us who we are. Those stories are what we pass to our listening children. These themes are implicit in the writing of the show; NextStop’s production has found a very innovative way of making the themes tangible.

Into the Woods is arguably Sondheim’s most accessible show, one that has greater depth than a first viewing may reveal. I’ve seen the show many times, from the original Broadway cast through professional and community theater efforts of greater or lesser success. The excellence of the performances and thoughtful design elements make this production one I will remember.

Cast

  • The Narrator: Ryan Manning
  • Cinderella: Brittany Martz
  • Jack: Sean Mccomas
  • The Baker: John Loughney
  • The Baker’s Wife: Katie McManus
  • Cinderella’s Stepmother: Jennifer Lambert
  • Florinda: Laura Fontaine
  • Lucinda: Jaclyn Young
  • Little Red Riding Hood: Nora Palka
  • Jack’s Mother: Lynn Audrey Neal
  • The Witch: Priscilla Cuellar
  • Cinderella’s Father/Mysterious Man: Blakeman Brophy
  • Cinderella’s Mother/Granny: Allizon Reggioli
  • The Wolf/Cinderella’s Prince: Scott Gains
  • Rapunzel: Suzanne Stanley
  • Rapunzel’s Prince: Scott Harrison
  • The Steward: Danny Tippett
  • The Giant’s Wife: Kathie Lee Gifford

Production Team

  • Director: Evan Hoffmann
  • Music Director: Elisa Rosman
  • Choreographer: Lorraine Magee
  • Assistant Director: Kristen Pilgrim
  • Production Stage Manager: Joan Lada
  • Assistant Stage Manager: Laura Moody
  • Scenic Designer: Steven Royal
  • Scenic Associate: Adam Koch
  • Costume Designer: Kathy Dunlap
  • Costume Associate: Sue Gattoni
  • Lighting Designer: Franklin C. Coleman
  • Properties Designer: Sierra Banack
  • Master Electrician: Brian Stefaniak
  • Sound Designer: Eric Kritzler
  • Sound Engineer: Stan Harris
  • Scenic Painter: Michelle Urcuyo
  • Make-up Designer: Kara Hogarty
  • Co-Hair Designers: Sue Pinkman, Kat Brais, Laura Fontaine, Jaclyn Young
  • Stage Combat: Kristen Pilgrim, Steve Lada
  • Electronics Crew: AnnMarie Castrigno, Michael O’Connor, Max Frost
  • Master Carpenter: William Gautney
  • Carpenters: Jeff Boatright, Kevin Hunter, Ian Brown, James Finley
  • Crew: Barbara Maltseva
  • Season Artwork: J. Noah Rubin, Jason Pepping

Disclaimer: NextStop Theatre Company provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.

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