Updated: Mar 25, 2022
"...For those of you who like your fairy tales un-Disneyfied, this path is no trail of bread crumbs...
A bright and beckoning path cuts through the fairy-tale thicket of whimsy and woe that is ''Into the Woods,'' the musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine that opened this past Friday night in a most enchanting show at Rose Center Theater in Westminster. But for those of you who like your fairy tales un-Disneyfied, this path is no trail of bread crumbs. The 1988 Tony winner combines four classic tales and serves them up with all the Grimm trimmings —curses cast and reversed, pecked-out eyes, sliced toes and heels, and a couple of trips into the actual belly of a beast.
One of Sondheim’s most popular works, the show twists the familiar stories of Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood into a deeper, darker tale of lovers and dreamers, fate and family, and the consequences of getting what you wish for. It’s a beautifully realized work with memorable music, some of Sondheim’s wittiest lyrics, and a book that’s both funny and touching, and RCT’s thoroughly enjoyable production more than does it justice. The characters of ''Into the Woods'' may be figures from children's literature, but their journey is the same painful, existential one taken by so many adults in Sondheim musicals past.
Nonetheless, even by the generous standards of magical forests, the woods seem awfully crowded. Inspired by Bruno Bettelheim’s classic analysis of fairytales, the mythical mashup includes a humble baker (the very appealing Vincent Aniceto) and his childless wife (Alexis Karol), whose bake shop is frequented by a bratty, shoplifting Red Riding Hood (Kristen Daniels), and who live next door to a quivering, haggardly old witch (Melissa Cook) with many axes to grind.
Long ago, the witch abducted the baker’s infant sister, Rapunzel (Kristin Henry), and cursed the baker himself with sterile genes — punishment for the sins of his estranged father, who stole magic beans from the witch’s garden once upon a time (“rooting through my rutabaga, raiding my arugula and ripping up the rampion”).
But the curse can be reversed, the witch announces, provided the baker and his wife set themselves on a quest into the woods — that scarily, inviting place where protections and inhibitions are removed — to procure the necessary ingredients in the span of 72 hours: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold.
There, they come into contact with all manner of fellow travelers running to or away from something: the farm boy Jack (Trevin Stephenson), reluctantly off to market to sell his beloved but milk-dry cow (Dafne Casterjon); Cinderella (Katherine Chapman), giving chase from a confounded Prince Charming (Brennan Eckberg); and Little Red (Kristen Daniels) herself, weighing mother’s advice about strangers against the dandyish charms of a certain pedophilic Mr. Wolf (also played by a lip-smacking Mr. Eckberg).
Like Prince Charming, Raymond Tezanos gives you character and cartoon in one breath. His fatuous Rapunzel’s Prince is expertly rendered with disarming, pretty-boy humor and vague heroic flourishes, sweetened with a Harry Connick Jr. baritone and the pelvis-twisting sensuality of a Channing Tatum. It is perfectly put to use in ''Agony,'' a witty ode performed with equally swashbuckling bravado as the two princes duel in duet, comparing notes on their woman troubles.
Cinderella’s stepmother, played by the scene-stealing Meredith Woodson, as well as the two wickedly funny step-sisters, Cherie Aniceto as Lucinda and Taylor Herbel as Florinda, go to any extent to become Prince Charming's Princess of the land, including blithely lopping off toes and heels to fit inside that elusive and very uncomfortable glass slipper. But even if the shoe fits ... and it does, of course...the exquisite Ms. Chapman’s Cinderella, combining poise and bewilderment (“On the Steps of the Palace”), is only vaguely aware that she is much more impressed by the royal ball than by landing the prince himself.
One of the richest parts in the show is that of the baker’s wife, a loyal helpmeet who can’t help but wonder if she’s cut out for grander things, and who pays dearly for that curiosity, stemming from an indiscrete episode of marital infidelity.
Ms. Karol has just the right nurturing yet wistful air to make the character heartbreaking in spite of (or rather, because of) her all-too-human flaws. Says the philandering Prince, “I was raised to be charming, not sincere.”
The Baker, splendidly played and sung by Vincent Aniceto, also has misgivings, especially when he has to dupe Jack out of his cow, then steal the “cape as red as blood” from the little girl, Red Riding Hood. The two younger-roled characters are perfectly cast: Mr. Stephenson, as Jack, has a marvelous voice and conveys just the right mix of befuddlement, bravery and tenderness, while Ms. Daniels lights up the stage whenever she skips into range as the perky, fearless, always hungry Little Red Riding Hood. Along the way, Val Aniceto does an excellent job as the Steward, and later, assists greatly with the Giant’s appetite.
Ms. Cook, with the show’s showiest role, is a theatrical success as the Witch, who is transformed from crone-like grotesqueness into dazzling beauty (the latter incarnation is not a stretch). She sings appealingly, sometimes mournfully, sometimes white hot, and can deliver her numbers with enough force to bring down houses. She’s an unneighborly all-purpose witch who is the ultimate possessive parent. Yet she can convey the cool, pragmatist side of her character easily enough when crisis looms.
The witch’s adoptive daughter, Rapunzel, has spent the large part of her life confined to a tower, where only her hair is the ladder to her lair. Kristin Henry portrays a deeply depressed Rapunzel, filling the theater with her echoing vocables, never knowing that the baker is indeed her real brother, and flirting desperately on the brink of borderline hysteria. In fact, there are enough dysfunctional characters and tangled catastrophes here to pack a psychiatrist’s waiting-room.
Chris Caputo makes a graceful and sobering Narrator, interjecting sidebars and keeping the story running smoothly, but just as suddenly, transforms into a wild, mysterious man who acts suspiciously like a few people I’ve met outside the diner. Mr. Caputo leads the company in the initial “Into the Woods,” and his connection becomes quite apparent at the close of the first act.
The conception is brilliant, the execution — virtuosic. Director Nelson has as much fun as derivable with his laudable evolvement of these old tales: Mr. Eckberg's rakishly venereal wolf sings, ''There's no possible way to describe what you feel when you're talking to your meal.'' Then there's the sassy Ms. Daniels, whose “slightly off-kilter” Lolita-like Red Riding Hood evolves into a ferocious little fox in a wolf stole; and, of course, the tender Ms. Chapman, whose running-scared Cinderella with a lovely, comic fragility recalls a young Issa Rae. Not to leave out Ms. Murphy-Nelson mugging campily as Jack's cash-strapped, cow-selling mother, whose humor may surpass the production's fundamental belief in grave, ontological fairy-tale magic.
But, as I mentioned, shades of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud dog the characters' footsteps. Their tales, illuminating with subplots swooping from left field, resonate with such mythic-psychiatric staples as abandonment fears, Oedipal loves and hatreds and the romance of the unattainable. The story, as a whole, deals with learning to live with their realities. And there are also moments that pierce the heart as no other musical could.
It is when the amazing cast simply sings in its conflict-laced arrangements that you float into an enchanted world whose pleasures and fears bear a mildly exaggerated relationship to those of everyday life. Just listen to Ms. Henry and Mr. Tezanos crooning in solicitous frustration in ''Our Little World.” Or Ms. Karol on impossible choices in ''Moment in the Woods.''
For all of us, these woods represent as much of a psychological space as a physical one — an existential crucible where innocence is lost, wisdom gained and the difficulty felt of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, be they glass-slippered or giant-sized. Case in point: Freed from the literal belly of the beast, Red Riding Hood sings (with dead-pan humor) that her lupine adventure made her feel scared, yes, but also excited, before concluding, “Isn’t it nice to know a lot?/And a little bit not.” Meanwhile, after her own illicit wooded liaison, the baker’s wife wonders, “Is it always ‘or?’/Is it never ‘and?’” — one of those deceptively simple Sondheim lyrics that feels like a definitive expression of life’s unending compromise.
In this wonderful muddle of Grimm fairy tales, all of Act One is spent wishing for things and making them come true, and all of Act Two is spent watching the results disintegrate into disasters. What was a lively romp at first becomes something completely different, and darker. A Giantess, whose husband fell to his death when Jack cut down the beanstalk after fleeing with the Giant’s gold, terrorizes the kingdom, flattening cottages, palace, and people like a vengeful Godzilla with a body count rivaling Sondheim’s own “Sweeney Todd.” Voiced offstage and only visible through a shadow projection, the looming Giantess (Rylie Herbel) blows an ill wind into the proceedings.
We find that children are not perfect and symbolic witches and even giants are not altogether evil incarnate. The cathartic songs "Children Will Listen" and "No One is Alone" instruct more about the human condition than most will ever get from any psychology textbook. The lyric's terrifying opening admonition, ''Mother cannot guide you'' sends one reeling back to the volcanic finale of Sondheim’s ''Gypsy,'' in which Ethel Merman cast her children into the woods of adulthood with the angry outburst, ''Mama's got to let go!''
So if you're looking for an authentic experience of Sondheim's classic musical, Rose Center Theater’s current production fills that bill. The elegance and complexity of RCT’s stagecraft alone is astounding, and combined with a wide variety of acting styles and Sondheim's delicious wordplay... Wonderful from beginning to end! Besides, how many musicals are out there that end with one witch disappeared, two giants, one wolf and five people dead, and still make you feel restored, amazed and gasping for air?
INTO THE WOODS
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; Book by James Lapine; Directed and Musically Directed by Tim Nelson; Special Choreography by Amanda J. Hinchee-Fish; Technical Direction, Sets, Lighting Design and Projections by Chris Caputo; Costumes by Carole Zelinger; Wigs by Cliff Senior and Kat Scott. Lighting Operator Cat Valentine; Sound Operator Stu Selig; Spot Operators Sophia Courtemarche and Eric Hearn; Program Design Sherre Titus; Marketing Manager Ryan Salazar. Presented by Rose Center Theater, Westminster.
WITH: Melissa Cook (Witch), Chris Caputo (Mysterious Man/Narrator), Katherine Chatman (Cinderella), Trevin Stephenson (Jack), Vincent Aniceto (Baker), Alexis Karol (Baker's Wife), Kristin Henry (Rapunzel/Cinderella’s Mother), Mary Murphy-Nelson (Jack's Mother), Kristen Daniels (Little Red Riding Hood), Brennan Eckberg (Cinderella's Prince and the Wolf), Raymond Tezanos (Rapunzel's Prince), Meredith Woodson (Stepmother/Granny), Cherie Aniceto (Lucinda), Taylor Herbel (Florinda), Val Aniceto (Steward), Dafne Casterjon (Milky White/Snow White), and Rylie Herbel (Giant/Sleeping Beauty). Swings: Garrett Brown, Rylie Herbel and Autumn Kirkpatrick.
ROSE CENTER THEATER presents, INTO THE WOODS, playing February 18th through March 6th. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30PM and Sundays at 2PM. Covid-19 safety protocols apply for attendance. For tickets and further information: https://rosetheater.booktix.com/ For group ticket reservations, call 714-793-1150 x1 or email: RoseCTBoxOffice@gmail.com.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Ryan Salazar and Rose Center Theater