“I wish— I wish to go to the festival! I wish to lift the magic spell that’s cursed upon my house!” I wish — I wish— so many wishes, but they’ll only come true if you venture Into The Woods at the Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre for their final production of 2013. Directed by Darnell Morris with Musical Direction by Trent Goldsmith, this Sondheim Fairytale isn’t like any fairytale you’ve ever heard before. With Cinderella running away from the Prince, and a giant stalking the land wreaking havoc on all in her footfalls happily ever after might be but a pipe dream no matter how deep these storybook denizens venture into the woods. Set with modern framework and a very impressive set of costumes, this dark and foreboding musical is one of composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s finest.
Director Darnell Morris, doubling as the show’s Set Designer, creates a dark and whimsical forest in shades of purple yellow and green; an enchanted backdrop with a dark twist that makes the woods a spooky place even if the woods are just trees and the trees are just wood. Morris keeps the fantasy element of the show alive with the help of Scenic Artist Sue Tilberry, who gets the storybook look well-grooved into these trees.
Morris’ unique framing for the show brings a more modern element to the familiar musical. Choosing to make the narrator a little boy who has run away from home because his parents are fighting, the show kicks off with the frightened little boy now alone in the woods telling a story to keep himself entertained. Compressing Sondheim’s work into the dreamscape and nightmare of one small child really hones the focus of the fantasy element of this production. It does at times cause minor confusions as the young Narrator, played by Andrew Sharpe, is at times soft spoken and inarticulate. But Morris’ choice is becomes a flash of horror; a well-suited payoff that fits the Sondheim bill, when the characters turn on the narrator early in Act II.
Costume Designer Linda Swann rounds out the imaginative look with her fusion of modern cos-play style costumes, infused with hints of Steampunk, gentle whimsy and bright colors. The step-sisters wear large garish dresses in pink and lime green plaid and purple and black stripes. Little Red Riding Hood and The Wolf have costumes that most strikingly resemble people from a comic convention, and the Steampunk influence is seen here as well as in the Princes’ outfits. Swann’s hodgepodge of assorted fabrics gives the show an eccentric feel to it; more than fitting for this fractured fairytale.
Musical Director Trent Goldsmith works diligently to hone some of the voices in the ensemble to perfection, but there is a slight imbalance throughout the production with everyone’s singing. At times the lead characters present crystal clear sounds with perfect pitch and articulate so that the clever Sondheim lyrics can be heard, but at other times, particularly during the more difficult rhythm sections of the performance, and large group numbers like “Into The Woods” the voices fade, crack and slide out of key. As this occurred in minor spots throughout and to no one person more so than any other, Goldsmith’s work was uneven. He did, however, manage to coax a rousing enthusiastic sound from the ensemble as a whole when they sing in unison toward the end of songs like “Into the Woods” and “Ever After.”
The cast is chock full of powerful serene voices. Rapunzel (Carol Ann Drescher) who sings but briefly from her tower; Cinderella’s Mother (Anastasia Sophia Herne) whose voice is featured in “Cinderella at the Grave,” and Stepmother (Erika Knepp) who has solo lines scattered throughout. These three women have simply divine voices that soar high into the rafters and sound heavenly, adding a beautiful blend to the many group harmonies performed throughout the show.
A precocious spunky character, Little Red Riding Hood (Lauren Winther-Hansen) is anything but the sweet innocent little girl from the children’s story. Winther-Hansen brings her own unique brand of panache to the character, particularly when singing “I Know Things Now.” Her interactions with the Wolf (Kelston Thomas) during “Hello, Little Girl” are creepy bordering on flirtatiously devious. Thomas, as the Wolf, is made to look like a cross between Jack the Ripper from Victorian London and a Time Traveler, but his peculiar look doesn’t hamper his villainous ability. Thomas is on the prowl, physically and vocally for this number, becoming a truly unsavory character alternating between jaunty and charming when singing with Red, and treacherous while singing at her.
Thomas doubles up as Rapunzel’s Prince, a flamboyant narcissistic character whose effeminate charm is matched only by that of his brother, Cinderella’s Prince (Alex Xourias). Thomas and Xourias are debonair, dashing, charming, and above all hilarious. When they swoop onto the stage, forever entering and exiting in a series of high-arching leaps, it’s impossible not to laugh. The pair couples up for “Agony,” turning this sweet ballad into an irreverent duet, pining over their women and showcasing what we in the modern world call “first world problems.” Thomas and Xourias pair up again for the song’s reprise in Act II, throwing themselves fully and even more comically into the number.
The Baker’s Wife (Malinda Markland) is quite the character. Forever bickering with her husband the Baker (Scott Gaines) she insinuates herself into situations that often end up causing trouble. Markland has an exceptional voice, particularly when it blends with Gaines’ in duets like “It Takes Two,” a song that grants a brief reprieve from the couples’ arguing to show that deep down they truly are in love. Markland delivers an excellent rendition of “Moments in the Woods” splitting herself apart as she is torn between a dreamy doe-eyed fantasy existence and the pragmatic reality in which she’s been thrust.
Gaines, as the Baker, doesn’t get a chance to fully showcase his vocal prowess until near the end of the show. “No More,” a harrowing duet, carried mostly by Gaines, breaks the Baker wide open, revealing the raw emotions of his consternation and strife after all that has happened. Gaines’ voice is powerful and well suited for this role.
Jack (Harrison Smith) is a boy described by his Mother (Cristina Shunk) as ‘touched.’ Smith’s acting proves this notion as he is a bit silly, fitting into the strange reality of Sondheim’s fairytale. His voice, however, is miraculous. Belting with pure enthusiasm and wide-eyed wonder during “Giants In The Sky” he astounds the audience with this concentrated sound, after playing the fool for the better part of the first act. Smith’s determination makes his character well grounded, despite his many flights up the beanstalk.
Cinderella (Sarah Treanor) has an equally stunning voice. Carrying many of the main lines in the large ensemble numbers it is easy to hear her voice above the others. With a sweet disposition and a dulcet tone that could easily lull you to sleep for how comforting it is, Treanor pours heart and soul into each of her songs. As the maid turned princess, she delves into all of the emotional baggage her character carries, giving a wide range of feelings from melancholy to excitement and everything in-between. Her song “On The Steps of the Palace” showcases her belt and her range, while “No One Is Alone” shows a tender cajoling side as she tries to comfort Red.
Without a witch you’d have no story, even if she is really just misunderstood. The Witch (Katrina Ellen Sillaman) is the epitome of vocal versatility in this production. Rapping her way through the garden segment of “Prologue: Into The Woods,” her pinched nasally voice is more than suitable for her gnarled and grisly figure. But after her transformation her voice becomes enigmatic and almost ethereal. There is raw broken emotion flowing from her heart in “Stay With Me,” showing her humanity and how deeply the world misunderstands that she is just lonely. “Witch’s Lament” is filled with anger that burbles under the surface, and her most epic number “Last Midnight” is a stunning finale that sends chills up your spine; a truly gifted performer placed in the perfect role.
Dally about and be in the woods, but you must make it out to ASGT before this show goes dark!
Running Time: Approximately Two hours and 45 minute, with one intermission.
Into The Woods plays through September 1, 2013 at the Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre— 143 Compromise Street in Annapolis, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 268-9212, or purchase them online.