Back in November of 1987, Into the Woods twinkled onto the Broadway stage for the first time. With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book and direction by James Lapine, it would run for 765 performances, picking up a lot of Tony Awards along the way. And on local theatre stages around the world it’s still running. There’s a reason for that. Even a die-hard non-fan like me has to concede its brilliance. C’mon, we’re talking Sondheim here!
Into the Woods is not one of my favorite shows. At least it wasn’t until tonight. Reisterstown Theatre Project’s production of the Stephen Sondheim musical changed my mind. To be honest, it’s still too long, the gorgeous melodies are too oft-repeated, and it’s kind of a downer, what with so much of the ‘Happy Ever After’ turning to ‘Crappy Here and Now’ in the 2nd act. But this is such a wonderfully performed and directed take on several well-known fairy tales, including Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, The Baker and his Wife, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Rapunzel, that the couple of elements I didn’t like were far outweighed by the ones I loved.
An affable narrator guides us through the story of The Baker and His Wife, who want to have a child. Unfortunately, there’s a Witch who lives next door and has placed a curse of infertility on them due to some family history with the Baker’s father. She offers to lift the curse if they bring her four items: a milky white cow, a red cape, a hank of blond hair, and a golden slipper. They set off into the woods in search of the items and encounter: Cinderella (she of the shoe), Jack (of the Beanstalk, who trades his milky white cow for a handful of beans no one knew were magical), Rapunzel (long blond hair, get it?) and Little Red Riding Hood, the kid with a sense of fashion sporting a red cape. How these disparate elements come together is what Into the Woods is all about.
The set design team of Eric Besbris, Shanie Nelson, and Mike Parks have crafted a clever set that transitions seamlessly from the suggested locales of the Baker’s Shop to Cinderella’s House, all in front of a slew of impressive birch trees and logs that form the infamous Woods. It’s all bathed in some of the best lighting I’ve ever seen done for a local production, compliments of – and to – Jim Shomo and Bea Lehman. Chuck Hirsch keeps the sound nicely balanced on stage.
Sally Kahn is a local theatre costuming wizard, with decades of experience on display once again with this beautifully dressed cast.The orchestra was frequently quite adept at playing the difficult score under the direction of Matt Elky.
Eric Besbris skillfully directs with a sure hand. He keeps the action moving with a steady focus on the stories and brings an expert level of professional quality to the evening. Besbris raises the bar for all local directors this time out.
Among the talented cast there were far too many stand-out moments to pay adequate homage to all of them in a single review. From Megan D’Alesandro’s lovely mezzo as Cinderella (her version of “On the Steps of the Palace” was hilarious)- to Jim Gerhardt’s rubber-faced, preening, charming Prince with a Voice of Gold, that’s only the beginning. When Gerhardt is joined by Kevin D’Alesandro as Rapunzel’s prince, they are both anything but “Agony” (for the three or four folks who don’t know the show, that’s the song they sing together.) Kevin also does a marvelously creepy Big Bad Wolf when he sings and howls “Hello, Little Girl.”
There are the always entertaining Toll Girls (mother Heidi and daughters Jennifer and Laura Toll Marchiano) as Cindy’s mean ol’ stepmother and step-sisters), Gabrielle Gilbert’s pitch-perfect Little Red Riding Hood with a voice that is way more mature and skillfull than anyone who looks that young should possess (she delivers a funny “I Know Things Now”) and let’s not forget the dim-witted Jack (Noah Maenner) who can make you feel sorry for him and jealous of his solid vocal skills at the same time, as he displays in his performance of “Giants in the Sky,” and his udderly delightful sidekick Milky White, played by Zack Tasker.
Daniel Plante is a lithe Mysterious Man with a surprisingly pleasing singing voice. Elizabeth Kanner is a solid Mother of Jack, full of maternal mismanagement but doing it in fine form.
Rounding out the rest of the excellent supporting cast are Lauren Warner (the scary voice of the Giant), Joe Weinhoffer (the stalwart Steward), and Bob Hilton (Cinderella’s Father). Wayne Ivusish (the Narrator) does an excellent job at unfolding the story.
Barbara Hartzell’s soaring, crystalline soprano as the Baker’s Wife is a rare delight Every time she opens her mouth, and especially in her heart-breaking solos -“Moments in the Woods” and “It Take Two” with The Baker – Ryan Geiger – she is nothing short of wonderful. If every time a bell rings an angel gets wings, then when Barbara sings somebody oughta get at least a carillon. She portrays the harried wife so desperate for a child – willing to do most anything to become a mother – with grace.
Ryan Geiger is as gifted an actor as he is a singer. He wears his emotions on his face with a transparency that is impressive. He’s vulnerable and completely accessible as The Baker. Every conflicted thought is telegraphed with a hang-down expression, a raised-eyebrow, a slumping posture. And when you add in the singing voice that would give most pros a run for their money on “”Maybe They’re Magic” and “It Takes Two” with Hartzell, as well as the emotional “No One is Alone” in the Second Act – you have what amounts to a full-on star turn. Bravo to an actor who bakes himself into this role with the skill set to pull it off in spades.
Kristen Zwobot. Kristen Zwobot. To say it only once is nowhere near enough. This woman’s performance as The Witch is a pedal to the medal, complete frontal assault, as in your face as a gale force wind. And leaves you only wishing for MORE! She’s a big-belting, soul-stirring actress who knows how to tell a story through song – as she displayed in the emotional “Stay with Me” (with the ever-suffering and hair-raising Rapunzel-Cameron Consuegra), and ‘Last Midnight.” Having a great voice is one thing. Knowing how to sing is another. Ms. Zwobot is blessed with both abilities.
With a score that includes some of Sondheim’s best tunes and most clever lyrics, American musical theatre doesn’t get much better than this. So go – get “Into the Woods” with this fabulous company at Reisterstown Theatre Project. It’s a journey well-worth taking.
Running Time: Two hours and 50 minutes, with an intermission.
Into the Woods plays through April 17th, 2016 at Reisterstown Theatre Project performing at Franklin Middle School – 10 Cockeys Mill Road, in Reisterstown, MD. For tickets, buy them at the door, or purchase them online.