Be careful what you wish for! Or you might just find yourself tumbling into a fairytale at the Purple Light Theatre Company. Of course, all fairytales have happy endings, don’t they? Or perhaps an ending that is a little more interesting as Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods comes to life in this new minimalist approach. Directed by Tommy Malek with Musical Direction by Benjamin Nabinger, this musical is the company’s second production; an ambitious approach to conquering musical theatre, one note at a time.
For being a young emerging company, the level of talent drawn into the cast is impressive. Spanning a wide range of ages and training, the actors come together under Musical Director Benjamin Nabinger and create a rather fruitful and productive series of well-blended harmonies that are often associated with Sondheim’s bigger musicals. Group numbers like the title song and “Ever After” as well as the “Midnight” series are strong in their vocal presentation and the harmonies are crisp and well delivered.
Taking Director Tommy Malek’s minimalist approach to the show allows Lighting and Set Designer William K. D’Eugenio to focus on the magic of the performance from the production end of things. The most effective lighting effect created in the production are the blinding flash-blinks that are sprinkled throughout; used first every time the witch casts a curse upon the Baker and his wife, and then later as the beans are spread about. D’Eugenio’s unique approach to shading characters in circles of shadow while providing exterior lighting around them creates stunning scenes— the perfect example being little Red in her shadow with the wolf prowling in a misty orange and red stage light.
D’Eugenio’s construction of the set is a curious but intriguing move. Having slight tiers and separated sections allows for the characters to exist in many facets of their stories all at once. The use of the tall ladders that flank either side of the stage create illusions of towers, while a smaller ladder on stage allows Jack to scale a beanstalk without question. The bridge that crosses the far corner of the stage also insinuates the idea of heading deeper into the woods; overall a well-plotted set upon which this epic story unfolds.
The costumes, designed by Amanda Polanoswki, are not of the grandiose nature that is often expected of this type of production. Keeping with the simplistic vision, Polanoswki takes a modern approach to outfitting the fairytale characters. The simple yellow color scheme for the Baker and his wife, as well as the blue scrubbing threads for Cinderella almost have a hint of 1950’s in their design work. The witch’s reveal dress as well as Cinderella’s ball gowns are delicate but elegant, nothing overly magnificent so as not to detract from the performances.
Director Tommy Malek creates pictures from a storybook with his blocking of the show. There are a great many moments peppered throughout the production that appear picturesque; just for a moment frozen from between the pages of these all too familiar tales. One of the finer ones, with a layer of deep meaning tucked beneath it, is when Jack sings “Giants in the Sky” and Red, Cinderella, and the Baker are all present on the stage and watching him; a curious foreshadowing to the ending. The pacing of the production— outside of these aesthetically enchanting moments— needs adjusting. The changes between scenes are often clunky or not quick enough, the transitions leaving pauses of empty space upon the stage. Once these changes become tighter, the show will move more quickly.
I was disappointed that the two princes’ (Jason Beall and Benjamin Nabinger) performance of “Agony” and “Agony (Reprise)” dragged along at an almost dirge-like pace. I wish their movements were more swift and charming. Beall, however, gave a brilliantly sung rendition of “Any Moment” later in the second act.
A minor character of note is Jack’s Mother (Cheryl K. Campo). Making the most of her brief appearances on the stage, Campo fully develops this spastic overwrought woman with an unflappably stern sense of priority. Her voice is surprisingly strong and when she is featured during “The Prologue” her voice is pleasing and concise. Rapunzel (Emily Morgan) is also worth noting for her extreme emotional scene during “Stay With Me,” a song sung by The Witch (Angela Sullivan). Morgan becomes distraught, overcome by her sorrow, channeling all of that energy into stroking her shorn hair, the only world she’s ever known suddenly taken from her. Watching this moment draws the audience into the character’s anguish thoroughly.
Sullivan, as the witch, is a solid casting choice as she is vocally able to deliver both the patter-rap from the beginning during “The Prologue” and her other solos, “Our Little World” and “Stay With Me.” It’s the way she approaches “The Last Midnight” that is truly impressive. Starting with the Baker’s baby in arms, she sings the first two verses of the song like a lullaby to the infant— a truly disturbing image as the other characters watch on in terrified awe. Sullivan’s ability to carve out the comic side of the witch, similar to Bernadette Peters approach, is intriguing; showcasing a seldom seen side of this character.
The quartet responsible for “Your Fault,” which also features Sullivan, creates the most fascinating and well executed musical number in the performance. Really driving the tempo of this song, each character goes after the other with a true vehemence, intent on forcing blame onto the others. Cinderella (Sherry Benedek) Jack (Paul Kennedy) Little Red (Katie Ganem) and the Baker (Dan Wagner) light a fiery spark in this number; a brilliant representation of Sondheim’s more complex work.
Benedek, as the shy princess, has a lovely voice for everything she sings. This rings particularly true in a duet opposite Wagner, “No One Is Alone,” where both of their voices deliver trusting council and love to the younger two of the quartet. Her rendition of “On the Steps of the Palace” is humorous and delivered with mirth. “A Very Nice Prince” is delivered in a similar fashion, slightly detached as she tries to focus on the details of the ball, making the humorous lyrics land with that much more sincerity.
Ganem, as the precocious sweet-eating scamp, grows on you. Her nasally, reedy pitched voice is obnoxious, and well suited as a character choice. Her initial encounter with Mister Wolf does not properly show her vocal prowess but she makes up for it by the time she reaches “I Know Things Now.” Her overall comic delivery is well timed, exacting some good giggles from her unintentional one-lined zingers.
Kennedy, though not the strongest of singers, makes up for what he lacks in vocal power in his facial expressions and physicality. To Kennedy’s credit he does have a gloriously belted sustain at the end of “Giants in the Sky” but it’s his vague disposition, especially when interacting with Milky White, that makes him loveable and truly grounded in this slightly silly character.
Dan Wagner, as the Baker, and Beth Amann, as the Baker’s Wife, are two sensational talents that sweep up the meaning of this show into their arms and carry it through to the end. Wagner is vivaciously animated, often times his silent facial expressions or physical responses to something Amann’s character has said resulting in a great deal of laughter. His voice is stunning; a strong, baritone sound that is rich with warmth and discovery. His featured solo “No More” is ripe with tormented emotions and they ring through with crystal clarity in each note.
The chemistry between Wagner and Amann is perpetually shifting; the couple runs the gambit of marital emotions in this performance. When they begin to resolve their issues and fall into the happy duet “It Takes Two” there is bliss abound between them that fills the entire stage. When they argue, it is fierce but believable. The pair play well off one another, responding to each other’s words and facial expressions as if they were actually married; really listening to the other, taking it all in before responding.
As for Amann, the perfect casting choice for this role, she succeeds in giving the Baker’s Wife a great deal of character. “Maybe They’re Magic” is the epitome of comic timing laced into her ability to emote while singing and speaking. Her voice is sublime; a true instrument for Sondheim’s work. During “A Very Nice Prince” Amann desperately tugs details from Cinderella using a triple threat combination of her voice, face, and overall body language to succeed in hearing about the ball. Amann has exceptional vocal control, knowing when to soften her sound and when to push it to its fullest; a superior understanding of balance. “Moments in the Woods” is nothing short of sensational.
Journey into the woods, if you can, for this production run is short, but it is a uniquely intriguing concept available in this summertime heat. A nice way to cool off with a fairytale or two, Purple Light Theatre Company has the show to view.
Running Time: Three hours. with one intermission.
Into The Woods plays through August 3, 2014 at Purple Light Theatre Company in the BBox Theatre of the Gateway Building at the Maryland Institute College of Arts— 1601 Mount Royal Avenue in Baltimore, MD. Tickets can be purchased at the door or in advance online