Every moment is a moment in the woods; a brief and fleeting moment of magical mystery and fairytale wonder. Stephen Sondheim’s classic Into The Woods takes to the stage to defy holiday traditions of happy and spirited at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre this winter, bringing all the magic of any Christmas story with a dark and ominous underbelly that will enthrall audiences everywhere. Fairytale characters at their darkest, a blood-thirsty Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella with commitment issues and princes that simply can’t keep it in their pants; it’s a dark and brilliant capturing of childhood corrupted. Directed by Fuzz Roark with exceptional Music Direction provided by Michael Tan, this is one holiday musical that will stray from the path.
Tackling enormous Broadway-scale musicals with casts that stretch on to infinity is always a challenge at Spotlighters Theatre, but Resident Set Designer Alan Zemla encapsulates the world of enchantment between the four pillars of the stage, allowing it to sprawl to the corners of the play space in a most unusual but uniquely creative fashion. Zemla makes little miracles happen in the quaint space, including an elevated tower for Rapunzel, and keeps the foreboding sense of mysticism alive with a self-growing beanstalk, ‘flying’ birds, and even an enormous ‘tree’ that serves as Cinderella’s mother’s gravesite.
A certain level of fantasy is expected when one sees a production of anything Sondheim, Woods being no exception. These fantastical illusions are delivered with flare thanks to resident Costume Designer Laura Nicholson. The peasants look distressed and Little Red glows brightly in her blood-colored cape, but Nicholson’s really impressive work is the numerous gowns that outfit the royal family, including four separate fabulous dresses for Cinderella; three of which are refined and elegant in all their splendor with hints of scarlet and gold in her court dress. But Nicholson’s finest work is evidenced in the wondrous costume shown on The Witch. With swirls of gold and pink paisley set against a rich chocolate, the costume looks like a decadently devious dessert, perfect for the sweetly sinister character.
Director Fuzz Roark creates an attitude profile across the board, giving the characters of Sondheim’s masterpiece a sassy edge. Roark constructs little unspoken moments between the characters, achieved with a sharply focused glance or striking gesture, occasionally even a piercing roll of the eyes. Roark utilizes these techniques most often in the relationship between the Baker and his Wife, occasionally with the Witch. This unique approach to adding a little extra spice to the already dark and twisted characters puts the Spotlighters’ signature touch on the production.
It speaks volumes of Musical Director Michael Tan’s abilities to transform the incredibly complex score of one of Sondheim’s masterpieces into a stunning musical performance. Tan coaxes an incredible sound from this cast; hitting the extremely intricate rhythms and note ranges with a finely honed precision resulting in a near-flawless execution. The harmonies in the main renditions of the title song, which is repeated throughout the performance, are exceedingly difficult but Tan tackles them with a vehement flare and ensures pitch-perfection as well as clear enunciation from the cast overall. Working with the individual principles as much as he does the ensemble, it is clearly showcased that Tan has created a phenomenal singing group for this production.
The little moments of heightened characterization is what keeps the laughs rolling in this otherwise dark musical. Exemplary moments of this come mainly from the Step Family: Mother (Christina Holmes) and the sisters (Autumn Boyle and Rachel Verhaaren). These three women have a haughty air about them, particularly when teasing Cinderella and make up a good portion of the levity when it comes to tragedy in the eyes of others. Narrating the story is John Hurley. While his narration is a bit plain and rather simple he makes up for this characterization when he doubles as the “Mysterious Man” with his wayward rhymes and kooky body language.
Cornering the market on flamboyance is Cinderella’s Prince (Juan Rodriguez) and Rapunzel’s Prince (Brian Kraszewski). The pair swoop about the stage in a woosh of over-the-top charming ridiculousness and are laughable as they leap to and fro. They live up to the comic expectations of the princes and becoming a winning combination with their rather regal voices for their main duet “Agony.” Both Rodriguez and Kraszewski do an impeccable job of keeping pace in this satirical number as the bemoan their problems and boast about their princesses to one another.
Rodriguez doubles as The Wolf and his eager and zesty flamboyance is exhibited exponentially higher in this character. With a rich howling voice for “Hello, Little Girl,” Rodriguez’s voice oozes a carnality that makes the song both sensually inappropriate and wildly hilarious. Keep an eye on the humorous affectations he brings to the character once the wolf is down for a post-meal nap, you’ll be sure to have a good laugh at his expense.
Little Red (Isabel Gordon) is a precocious and amusing character. Gordon does an exceptional job of balancing the character’s dynamic depth, alternating between naïve and viciously overbearing. Her voice is strong with hints of syrupy youth for “I Know Things Now,” and she digs her vocal claws into “Your Fault,” holding her own against the others in that very complex rhythm run.
Just like the dueling princes there are dueling princesses in this production, each having a voice more sweet than the last. Cinderella (Meryem Ahmadian) and Rapunzel (Claire Iverson) vie for the title of prettiest song bird voice and go neck to neck the entire performance. Iverson has a lilting high-pitched soprano sound which is perfect for duet “Stay With Me” sung with the witch. Ahmadian has a voice clear as a bell and turns “Cinderella at the Grave” into an almost mournful lullaby. Her voice is featured throughout as one of the principle singers and her solo “On The Steps of the Palace” is well-articulated and emotionally punctuated.
The ambitious Jack (Sean Dynan) has an innocence to his character that is both adorable and laughable. Touched, daft, thick, however you’d like to phrase it Dynan masters the ‘silly’ side of this eager young boy but showcases the lad’s depth for “Giants in the Sky” a warm and adventurous solo that really displays his vocal talent. His interactions with his Mother (Gillian Kramer) make for some amusing comic moments as well. Dynan is a brilliant accompaniment to the four-part harmony number “No One Is Alone” also featuring Ahmadian, Gordon, and Tiffany Spaulding; the best and moving number in the show.
If it’s anyone’s story it’s The Baker (Michael Rostek) and his Wife (Tiffany Spaulding.) The pair sings extremely well together, hitting perfect harmonies and rhythms for “It Takes Two.” It’s the subtle burbling of Rostek and Spaulding’s chemistry—never quite coming to a roiling boil but just enough to spread a little alarm—that really makes the couple function in the performance. Rostek has a hearty sound that really brings layers of emotions to “No More,” true confessions echoing in this number from the depth of his heart. Spaulding has a brilliant voice that sparkles in ensemble numbers and shines beautifully for “Moments in the Wood.”
It’s the stunning Evangeline Ridgaway taking the role of the Witch that rounds out this talented cast. Her voice is sublime, particularly when she solos during “It’s The Last Midnight.” A versatile performer, she raps her way through “Stay Out of My Beans” early in the show and sings with a cloying sweetness for the duet she shares with her daughter Rapunzel. Ridgaway does more than sing with a sensational voice, she thoroughly develops a solid character that bends and shifts as the plot of the story twists and turns. Her emotions are on the very reflective sleeves of her costume and she has no trouble pulling them into her music, her body language and her speaking voice; an overall stunning performance.
So go into the woods; you never know what you’ll find there, be it adventure or a prince, but I can guarantee if you go Into the Woods at Spotlighters Theatre, you’ll find an amazing show perfect to offset all of the extremely cheery and chipper holiday musicals that are happening this time of year.
Running Time: Approximately three hours, with one intermission.
Into The Woods plays through December 22, 2013 at The Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre— 817 North Saint Paul Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 752-1225, or purchase them online.