I was a little skeptical that the intimate, in-the-round stage at the Spotlighters Theatre would be able to do justice to the action-packed musical production Into the Woods. Failing to learn from the past, I always had those misplaced reservations when Spotlighters ambitiously tackles a grand splashy musical only to discover the creative team and performers manage to pull it off and then some. The same trepidation I had for Into the Woods going in, with 17 cast members wearing over 100 costumes, singing over three dozen songs, numerous scene changes and the like, was put to rest quickly as Director Fuzz Roark with a fine ensemble and crew delivered a delightful and thoroughly entertaining production.
Into the Woods, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, is a multiple Tony Award winner. The show opened on Broadway in 1987 and ran for 765 performances. Sondheim had won eight Tony awards in his prolific career–more than any other composer.
As kids we all remember those fairy tales where the characters lived happily ever after. With the Spotlighters’ presentation of Into the Woods, we get to enjoy four such fairy tales—“Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Rapunzel.” Their plots are interwoven and linked with the original story of the Baker and his Wife in this magical, entertaining, and sometimes dark musical that confronts real issues found in adulthood, not necessarily childhood.
As Act I unfolds the dapper Narrator (played effectively by John Hurley) introduces the characters. The Baker and his Wife are having a tough time producing a child and join in the stories of the other fairy tale characters as the couple pursues their quest for a child. Cinderella, Jack, Little Red Riding Hood referred to as Little Red and Rapunzel also had wishes as they meander through the woods in search of those dreams.
The neighboring Witch had put a spell of infertility on the Baker and Wife after catching the Baker’s father in her garden stealing “magic” beans. But the Witch’s mother also cast a spell—on her—that made her old and ugly. To reverse it she would need ingredients for a special potion, and if the Baker and Wife could provide by three midnights hence, that curse—their inability to conceive a child—would be removed.
Those ingredients are: A Slipper As Pure As Gold (obtained from Cinderella), A Cow As White As Milk (from Jack), A Cape As Red As Blood (from Little Red), and Hair As Yellow As Corn (from Rapunzel). Following the harrowing adventures in the woods to gather these ingredients, the potion is created, fed to the cow called “Milky White” and it works, restoring the Witch’s beauty but stripping her of her power.
Act I conforms to what we expect from the Brothers Grimm who authored these four tales: all the characters had their wishes fulfilled and “lived happily ever after,” or did they?
In Act II we get a glimpse of what can transpire beyond “happily ever after” endings and the consequences of the characters’ wishes. Without revealing the storyline, this act is darker than the first with its murders, terror, lies, adultery, betrayals, accusations and revenge. Serious issues must be addressed, such as parent-child relationships and dealing with the angry vengeful widow of the Giant. In taking on this and other challenges, the surviving characters discover they can find strength in their interdependence with one another.
Although most of the melodies in my opinion are not particularly remarkable other than the title song, which is performed several times with variations, Sondheim’s lyrics are superb. Each number cleverly, and at times comically, augments the dialogue and adds a significant dimension to the plot. Much of the dialogue is conducted in storybook rhyme and is executed proficiently. These lyrics and the songs’ performances by the well-costumed cast are the show’s strengths.
“Hello, Little Girl,” performed by a very campy Juan Rodriguez as the Wolf and Isabel Gordon as Little Red was a delight. “Agony,” a duet by Cinderella’s Prince and Rapunzel’s Prince (again Juan Rodriguez and Brian Kraszewski, respectively) who are brothers also scored high marks as they expressed their boredom with their respective marriages.
“Stay With Me” performed by Claire Iverson as Rapunzel and Evangeline Ridgaway as the Witch was sensitive and touching. The fast-paced, frenetic number “Your Fault,” a favorite of mine, was skillfully performed by Sean Dynan as Jack, Michael Rostek as the Baker, Meryem Ahmadian as Cinderella, Ms. Gordon and Evangeline Ridgaway as the Witch with each blaming the other for a tragic accident (not to be revealed here).
Mr. Rostek and Tiffany Spaulding as his Wife, the lead characters, are truly outstanding in both acting and vocals. They are called on to perform many musical numbers with “It Takes Two” as an example that is exceptional.
Gillian Kramer as Jack’s Mother and Isabel Gordon as Little Red are also standout performers. Their voices are powerful, and their acting enhanced by expressive body language is spot-on. The other cast members also made significant contributions to this finely tuned production under Roark’s guiding hand.
Meryem Ahmadian as Cinderella possesses a lovely singing voice as evidenced in “On the Steps of the Palace” and “Arms of a Princess.”
Sean Dynan as Jack was quite impressive given that this was his debut singing and acting stage performance. His delivery and movements were flawless and executed with ease, and his singing voice, as showcased in his solo “Giants in the Sky” as well as a number of combination songs were quite good.
Both Juan Rodriguez as Cinderella’s prince (he also deliciously played the Wolf) and Brian Kraszewski as Rapunzel’s prince added a lot of laughs with their breeziness.
John Hurley who played both the Narrator and Mysterious Man and Patrick Gorirossi as the Prince’s Steward also performed admirably as did Cinderella’s stepsisters, Autumn Boyle and Rachel Verhaaren; Claire Iverson playing three characters Rapunzel, Cinderella’s Mother, and Red’s Grandma; and Micah Chalmer as Cinderella’s father in a small role.
Musical Director Michael Tan on the keyboards, Greg Bell on bass guitar and William Georg on percussion seamlessly back up the skilled vocalists and are excellent.
Fuzz Roark is noted for his imaginative use of what little space he has at his disposal to make a small stage seem large and allow the actors to make entrances and exits in multiple directions. Set Designer Alan Zemla utilized every nook and cranny in the theater including the e******n of Rapunzel’s elevated tower.
The four beams on the stage that hold up the upper floors are neatly transformed into elegant arches. A six-inch high square platform in the center of the stage, where much of the action occurs, adds depth and movement by the actors. Ivy hanging from those arches and ceilings are used to depict the “woods” in an understated and effective way, rather than trying to concoct some garish bunch of trees.
Veteran Spotlighters Costume Designer Laura Nicholson fitted the performers in outstanding storybook garb from a far-off kingdom, with many donning multiple outfits throughout the show.
One must make do with what you have and this Spotlighters production of Into the Woods proved once again that with some creativity, imagination and a talented cast and crew any fears of not pulling off a big, popular musical are unwarranted. This production is highly recommended.
Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes with an intermission.
Advisory: The second act is not suitable for children because of adult themes. Special matinees presenting Act I only are scheduled for each Saturday afternoon for children.
Into the Woods runs through December 22 at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St., Baltimore, MD 21202. Tickets may be purchased by calling 410-752-225 or by visiting www.spotlighters.org.