The charming musical Into the Woods turns its fairy tales inside out
Director Dustin Czarny likes big shows, and he has a habit of exceeding expectations and confounding his detractors. His breakthrough moment came four summers ago with Sherman Edwards’ 1776 with Appleseed Productions, where he put two dozen singing men in knee breeches, and went on to collect a passel of People’s Choice honors at the Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) awards.
Buoyed by continuing successes, he started his own outfit, Not Another Theater Company, 18 months ago, doing smaller-scale works as dinner theater items at the Locker Room’s Fire and Ice Banquet Hall, 528 Hiawatha Blvd. Taking on a co-producer, Bill Brod, publisher of The New Times and Family Times, Czarny gained the resources for a really big show, eight musicians and 24 speaking and singing parts in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. It’s playing at--where else?—the New Times Theater at the New York State Fairgrounds.
As the show begins, anyone can see and hear where the extra resources have gone. The set by Navroz Dabu, the hardest-working man in community theater, comes with a tower for Rapunzel, two raked runways, slippery enough for Cinderella’s fall, and numerous hidden passages for rapid entrances and exits. The production staff cites more than 40 names, some doubling as cast members, who clearly have been kept busy for the last few weeks. Clothes designed by Deb Ritchey draw on the resources of CNY Costumes. This means the two princes look more like royalty than marching band members. Even the program is classier, with high resolution photos of cast members in character.
It’s more than conspicuous consumption.
Contributing to the Little Red Ridinghood sequence is Grandma’s vertical bed with a convenient hole cut for the head of the Wolf (Alex Cupelo) to poke through. Later when the Wolf is vanquished, a knife slit to the midsection allows the revived Red (Gina Ferrelli, who alternates with Marissa Pizzutto in some performances) and Granny (Patricia Elise Catchouny) to escape.
At the same time, Czarny has remained loyal to the coterie of techies and performers that have been gathering around him in the past few years. True, there are some new faces, apparently found through auditions, but most of the key players have been with him before, like the Baker and his Wife (Greg J. Hipius and Meghan Pearson), the Narrator (Lanny Freshman, alias Dr. Lanny from Family Times), and the nominal starring role of the Witch (Danan Tsan), who appeared in Czarny’s 2009 A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum under the name of Danan Healy. Only for the role of Cinderella did Czarny import SALT winner Carmen Viviano- Crafts, a favorite of the Le Moyne Drama Department, who has previously appeared in another production of Into the Woods.
Czarny explains in a program note why Into the Woods has been important to him, citing a worn out VHS copy of the PBS production he watched with his daughter. We can deduce other motivations. For musical theater mavens, Stephen Sondheim has been the acknowledged master for the last generation. And with that comes the proviso that he does not play well in the provinces, and might indeed be box-office poison in Onondaga County, except for Forum and possibly Sweeney Todd. So quite apart from is own artistic merits, Into the Woods allows a company to aspire and give an audience a good time, too. It’s family-friendly Sondheim.
Inspired by Bruno Bettelheim’s still-read study of nursery tales, The Uses of Enchantment (1976), Sondheim and his frequent collaborator James Lapine draw elements from four traditional stories, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel and Little Red Ridinghood (spelled that way in the original 1987 production), with references to others, like Sleeping Beauty. To this farrago they add the invented story of the childless Baker and his Wife who are hoping to start a family and so interact with characters from the other four. Sondheim and Lapine safely assume we know all the elements of the four traditional narratives, so that we know what a scold Jack’s mother (Kathy Eggloff) can be. And as soon as all that is in place, Sondheim and Lapine are free to subvert, reverse or blend without fear of losing us.
To weave the narrative strands together, Sondheim and Lapine introduce a Narrator who tells us that each character, traditional and invented, begins with a wish. Lanny Freshman’s crisp diction gives the narrator authority, but the actor’s native impishness encourages us to expect irony. By the end of the joyous first act everyone has fulfilled his or her own wish, just as in fairy tales. In the second act, however, the old wishes are succeeded by new ones when the happy endings don’t quite work out. Or as a Prince (Alex Cupelo) explains to Cinderella, “I was raised to be charming, not sincere.”
The contrasting tones of the first and second acts as well as the nooks and crannies of the multiform, twisting plots mean that Sondheim has astonishingly wide opportunities for musical expression. This includes resplendent emotion, smashing the cliché that Sondheim is only bloodless and clever.
Musically and dramatically, the Witch has the most to do. Her transformation at the end of the first act, from a Halloween cartoon crone to a drop-dead, ice princess Nordic beauty, allows Danan Tsan to dominate any scene she ambles through. Her training at the Eastman School serves her well in the dissonant second-act solo, “Witch’s Lament.” Later her controlled power leads the ensemble in the affecting finale, “Children Will Listen.”
Of the narrative threads the Cinderella story is continually the most arresting, with Carmen Viviano-Crafts’ skilled delivery, notably leading “No One is Alone” toward the end of the second act, and her believable sad-sack char-girl. The comedy in this sequence comes from the snarling and hilarious Stepmother (Rebecca Hall) as well as those two cute step-dragons, Florinda (Wendy Viggiano) and Lucinda (Ceara Windhausen).
Unusual in this production, the role of the Baker’s Wife becomes an invitation for scene stealing. Meghan Pearson, who also serves as Woods’ choreographer, punches her modestly written gag lines to the max. Her two solos, “Maybe They’re Magic” in the first act and “Moments in the Woods,” in the second, are both show-stoppers. For Pearson, whose handling of the Appleseed Productions show Parade won the SALT award for Best Musical, May 2011 is turning out to be a very good month.
Not that her husband the Baker, played by Greg Hipius, is ever left behind. His earnest and sheepish portrayal of the frequently misused Baker, kind of the Charlie Brown of the show, is central to Czarny’s vision of what the show is about. His duet with the disguised narrator, “No More,” smoothes the show’s tension toward resolution.
The two handsome Princes, Alex Cupelo and Liam Fitzpatrick, delight with the mockromantic duet, “Agony,” on why “ever after” does not specify “happily.”
Dustin Czarny wanted to show us that he was capable of more. With Into the Woods, he has topped himself again.
This production opens Thursday, May 12, with other weekend performances scheduled for Friday, May 13, Saturday, May 14, and Sunday, May 15. The show continues May 18- 22 and May 26-28. See Times Table for more information.
Once upon a time: Cast members of Into the Woods get into the spirit as Rapunzel, Little Red Ridinghood and other characters.