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REVIEW: "Into The Woods" — STAGEStheatre, Fullerton

“Anything can happen in the woods.”

This is the premise of the much-beloved musical, “Into the Woods,” a modern, dark take on traditional fairytales, which opened last Saturday in Fullerton as STAGEStheatre’s newest production slides into summer. Playing to a full house, Director Jill Johnson (“All the World’s a Grave,” “Missed Connections”) has once again transcended to primacy with this prodigious production. How many musicals out there ends with one witch turning up as a missing person, plus two giants, a big bad wolf and five townspeople dead, and you still feel restored, amazed and gasping for air?

Heavy on frenetic comedy, the dramatic weight of James Lapine’s book combines with the sublime fluency of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics and takes us on a journey to a fairytale land with some easily recognizable, dysfunctional characters. Among them, the dim-witted, beanstalk-climbing Jack, the lovely Cinderella, forced into a life of servitude, a humble baker and his wife, whose bake shop is frequented by a bratty, shoplifting little girl in a red hood, and who lives next door to a haggardly old witch with seemingly many axes to grind.

Each receives a mission that sends them into the titular woods where they meet other familiar faces – the deeply depressed Rapunzel, the shifty, scheming Big Bad Wolf and his dinner, Granny, and two rambunctious Princes. They find and lose their path time and again, literally and metaphorically, always looking for their “happily ever after” as their lives are weaved together in unexpected ways around the curse that is preventing the Baker and his Wife from having a child they so desperately desire.

Back story: Long ago, the Witch (Briana Bonilla) abducted the Baker’s infant sister, Rapunzel (Brooke Veluzat), and cursed the Baker himself (Justin Budds) with sterile genes —punishment for the sins of his estranged father (who “stole magic beans from the Witch’s garden,” she says, “once upon a time”). But “the curse can be reversed,” the Witch repudiates, provided the Baker and his Wife (Melissa Musial) 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.

The first half is a farcical, hilarious romp, where the characters plot to get their wishes by whatever means necessary. All seems rosy until after the break, when a furious giantess arrives by beanstalk to seek revenge for her husband, who Jack inadvertently kills when the giant slips, chasing him down the beanstalk. Events turn serious then, as the characters learn penalties of greed and the consequences of their actions.

The caliber of talent on stage is collectively praiseworthy, including central characters Mr. Budds as the Baker and Ms. Musial as his Wife. Both possess eloquence and unerring vocal prowess, notably shaping audience emotions with might and main. Ms. Veluzat, who also doubles as the sassy, savvy and slightly scary Little Red Ridinghood, does a complete transmutation of a different character in the Princess.

Additionally, Hayden Mangum gives us a charmingly childlike portrait of Jack, the giant killer. Jack’s cow, Milky White (Tucker Boyes), nearly steals the show, however, every time “she” graces the stage. The production opts for a live person to play the now famous cow, which adds a dimension to the role the usual wooden cow can't match, with the cowbell-accessorized Mr. Boyes in the spotlight doing double-takes, exaggerated physical comedy and slapstick. Mr. Boyes also makes a pretty stylish Wolf in the show.

Another pair of scene-stealers were the two Princes, who are both charming and clueless. Justin Keane Crawford, and once again Mr. Boyes, gets two spectacular songs that they share, swapping tales of woe over their princely plights in the breast-beating, “Agony.” Other act one highlights include Mr. Mangum’s lovable, bumbling Jack singing the charming song "Giants in the Sky," and Ms. Veluzat’s excellent performance in the coming-of-age number, "I Know Things Now." The Wolf’s early on rendition of “Hello, Little Girl,” is also an exhilarating, yet edgy, sight to behold as he stalks his prey.

Meanwhile, Mr. Crawford’s Prince pursues and woos the analytical, overthinking Cinderella, while Mr. Boyes’ Prince liberates Ms. Veluzat’s histrionic Rapunzel from her solitary confinement in a tower, bringing a sobering, yet graceful edge of borderline hysteria to the Princess’s despair.

And Ms. Bonilla is truly dazzling in the complex role of the malicious and misunderstood Witch, which she plays with relish, strutting and swooping around the stage, sometimes powerful, sometimes perverse, but delivering some of the most compelling musical numbers in the show. Her range soars from the plaintive “Stay with Me,” a duet with Rapunzel, to the more aggressive and stunning “The Last Midnight,” in which the Witch lays bare some of the moral issues at the play’s center.

The merriment is balanced by the sincerity of the bewildered but honest Baker and his boldly brazen Wife, whose story is the heart and emotional center of the show. Carrie Ryder (Jack’s Mother, Cinderella’s Stepmother, Cinderella’s Real Mother – it’s complicated), rounds out a solid company, who, along with the two Princes switch-hit during their off-times as the two step-sisters, draped in what looks like a set of curtains over their necks, simulating ladies’ gowns.

The fact that everyone seems to get exactly what they want by the happily ever after conclusion of act one often leaves some audience members wondering... Wait? Is it over? What else is there to explore after we get our happy ending? Why, the consequences, of course. So when that plus-size lady giant comes stomping around the woods looking to avenge the death of her beloved (Jack’s misdeed), everything starts to get a bit scrambled.

Those performances, however, only shine more bright. Mr. Crawford as Cinderella's straying Prince once again uses his rich baritone to seduce the Baker's Wife (Ms. Musial), as she becomes a force of nature with his "Any Moment." Ms. Musial immediately follows that up with her own strong performance of the poignant "Moment in the Woods," half afterglow, and half "what just happened?" The philandering Prince's, "I was raised to be charming, not sincere," evoking a gasp of recognition from the audience, is a testament to Sondheim's ability to codify emotions in a few startling words, frequently locked in a complex rhyme.

Audrey Bivens, who literally has more songs in the show than anyone, personified Cinderella so perfectly her voice should be patented. Clear as a bell, one can not only imagine songbirds at her beck and call as soon as she opens her mouth, we actually see them fluttering around her head. “On The Steps of The Palace,” one of the more familiar treats of the night, was an especially strong audience favorite in the first half. Another winner toward the end of act two had the Baker and the Mysterious Man (James Scognamillo) sharing a powerful scene of recrimination and reconciliation, beautifully performing the song "No More." Mr. Scognamillo's man of mystery was truly a precise portrayal and was the distinct link, tying the story together.

Featuring adorable costumes and sets, along with a killer cast, STAGEStheatre knocked this production out of the park. Brilliantly executed, the dedication and professionalism of Director Johnson, the crew and ensemble players was clear from the start, producing an enthralling show underscoring the incredible synergy and vocal agility of the whole cast.

The Producer is Patti Cumby. Scenic designer Jon Gaw’s minimal set is both adequately magical and scary. Mr. Gaw, also the Technical Director, combines lighting effects by Kalen Cobb showing twisted bark and the layers of overhanging vines in projected light, resembling the woodsy coppice. Jill Johnson, who also serves as Musical Director, Sound Designer and Costume Coordinator, is in firm control, enhanced by Eddie Valdez as Stage Manager.

Piano accompaniment is by Nathaniel Brown and Gabrielle Maldonado, with additional accompaniment by Carrie Ryder on Cello and Kazoo, Briana Bonilla on Clarinet and Bird Whistle, Justin Keane Crawford on Trombone and Bird Whistle, and Audrey Bivens, Brooke Veluzat, Melissa Musial, James Scognamillo, Hayden Mangum, Tucker Boyes and Justin Budds sharing Triangle, Chimes, Glockenspiel, Tambourine, and additional Percussion instruments.

Whatever generation you belong to, there is something for you in this musical. It’s a remarkable production, not only full of fun, but full of excitement and angst. From the music, to the performances by the cast, every element is top notch, with moral themes driving the story of actions versus consequences. Yes, it may be darker than expected, but in it, Sondheim and Lapine accomplishes the sometimes impossibly difficult task of satisfying both adults and children alike.

“Into the Woods,” is currently playing through July 21st at STAGEStheatre, now celebrating their 27th year. Get your tickets for this show at: Season tickets also are available.

This show is highly recommended!

Chris Daniels

Arts Reviewer

Photos courtesy of Kirk Schenck


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