‘Into the Woods’ at Toby’s Dinner Theatre

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Are you ready to veer from the path and take another tumultuous journey Into the Woods? Go ahead, throw caution to the wind. You’ll find yourself in amusing company at Toby’s—The Dinner Theatre of Columbia.

The cast of 'Into The Woods.' Photo by
The cast of ‘Into The Woods.’ Photo by Jeri Tidwell.

As good as last year’s film version looked and sounded, it didn’t always put across the good humor of the original 1987 Tony-winning musical. At Toby’s, comedy is back as a major player.

Audiences love to watch these familiar nursery tales taken to the wood shed in a thoroughly literate mash-up. Cinderella, Rapunzel, Red Ridinghood, Jack (of Beanstalk fame), and several others are dropped in a whirring Cuisineart of melody, meaning and endless wordplay by puzzle-maestro Stephen Sondheim and his collaborator-in-chief, James Lapine.

You might be struck like I was at how often the sound of delighted laughter dogs the heels of these archetypal characters. Maybe it is, as the Witch sings to one of them, “You’re so good, you’re so nice.” It’s a pure guiltless pleasure watching them driven out of their mother-lovin’ comfort zones.

Toby Orenstein and Mark Minnick have teamed up for the staging of yet another surefire crowd-pleaser in Howard County.

Getting things rolling on a very high level are Toby’s veterans Jeffrey Shankle and Priscilla Cuellar as the Baker and his Wife. Shankle and Cuellar both have precise and musical singing voices, shown to excellent advantage in their duets and solos “It Takes Two,” “No More” and the lovely “Moments in the Woods.”

The dynamic pair’s seasoned comedy timing and dramatic nuance make them perfect as the barren married couple who will literally do anything to have a child. A neighborhood Witch sets them off on a quest to break their spell of infertility, giving what follows added poignance to  modern-day moms and dads.

Also having a bad time on the edge of the forest is Cinderella, who finally gets her chance to go the king’s festival only to end up being chased into the woods by a determined (but not-too-sincere) Prince Charming.  As Cinderella, Julia Lancione shows a spot-on sense of absurd comic timing with “On the Steps of the Palace,” then turns around to reveal the most outstanding voice of the evening in the moving anthem “No One Is Alone.”

Little Red Ridinghood is another gem of a comedy role, and Sophie Schulman gets it in a chokehold and doesn’t let go. In Schulman’s interpretation, Little Red emerges from her experience in the belly of the big, bad wolf as a born-again survivalist, a pint-sized spitfire waving a Bowie knife in the face of all perceived threats.

It’s wonderful to see Janine Sunday back in a leading role at Toby’s. As the Witch here, this multiple Hayes Award nominee will make you forget Streep and Peters with the magic spell of her powerful voice in “Stay With Me” and “Children Will Listen.” Best of all is her spine-tingling tantrum in “Last Midnight,” the most histrionic meltdown of a witch since Margaret Hamilton.

Other show-stopping highlights include the solo “Giants in the Sky” by Jimmy Mavrikes as Jack; “Hello, Little Girl” by Lawrence Munsey as the Wolf; and the always surefire princes’ duet “Agony,” sung with over-the-top brilliance by Justin Calhoun and Jonathan Helwig as the two commiserating narcissists.

Priscilla Cuellar (The Baker's Wife). Jeffrey Shankle (The Baker), and Janine Sunday (The Witch). Photo by
Priscilla Cuellar (The Baker’s Wife). Jeffrey Shankle (The Baker), and Janine Sunday (The Witch). Photo by Jeri Tidwell. Courtesy of Toby’s Dinner Theatre.

Russell Sunday plays the Narrator in formal wear with tails that make him appear a bit like a circus ringmaster — not a bad association considering the three-ring antics of the plot. Sunday, another past Hayes Award nominee, could get some of his narration out there front and center more forcefully, especially in the early scenes. But fear not, he does get to unleash that big voice of his to outstanding effect in “Ever After” and “No More.”

Jane C. Boyle as Jack’s peasant mother; Katherine Riddle as Rapunzel; Marykate Brouillet and Katie Keyser as Cinderella’s stepsisters; and Heather Marie Beck as the mean stepmother herself all add flawless support to the comical storytelling and first-rate ensemble singing.

Finally, I can’t end the review without mentioning the contribution of Alex Beveridge as Milky White, the sad-sack cow with its ribs showing, its drooping disgrace of an udder, a hump like a camel and yet dominating all with acres and acres of attitude.

Greg Knauf conducted the live pit orchestra the night I attended, setting a good pace and finding just the right blends of instruments to add richness to Ross Scott Rawlings’ orchestrations.

Lighting design plays a heavy role in this theater-in-the-round staging. The under-sung Lynn Joslyn helped evoke all of the action’s fanciful settings with no strain showing at all.

The gorgeous fairy tale costumes by Eleanor Dicks had us drinking in every detail. And those magical woods and other assorted scenes were all resourcefully suggested by David A. Hopkins’ Set Design.

At end we left thoroughly enchanted, dropping a trail of breadcrumbs behind us in case we decided to make our way back. This is a journey you don’t want to miss!

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes, including one 20-minute intermission.

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Into the Woods plays through September 6, 2015 at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia— 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia, MD. Reservations are required at (301) 596-6161, (410) 730-8311 or 800-88TOBYS , or purchase them online. 

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John Harding
Born and raised in Los Angeles, John Harding is an award-winning writer and editor. His features and reviews on film and theater have been published in the Washington Post and numerous other newspapers and magazines. Since 1982 he has covered D.C. and Maryland theater for Patuxent Publishing, and was arts editor for the Baltimore Sun Media Group. He hosted a long-running cable-TV cultural affairs program and served numerous terms as chair of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society. Also known for his fiction as John W. Harding, his newest novel is “The Ben-Hur Murders: Inside the 1925 'Hollywood Games.'” It grew out of his lifelong love of early Hollywood lore. It is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other outlets.

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