Saturday, February 15, 2014

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Into the Woods"

Full Disclosure: The reviewer is a member of the Board of Directors of the Cloverdale Playhouse.

Bravo ! -- The Third Season at The Cloverdale Playhouse started Thursday night with director Randy Foster and his excellent ensemble actors in their exquisite "Sold Out" production of multiple award winning Into the Woods, the 1986 Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical that takes fairy tales to increasingly intriguing, challenging, and thoroughly entertaining heights.

As the play weaves the plots of some of the Brothers Grimm's familiar tales -- Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, et al. -- they take on significant dimensions relevant to modern adult audiences, while retaining the child-friendly wonder and magic of the original stories.

Sondheim's score is one of his most challenging to even the most experienced and highly trained singers, and the Cloverdale cast do more than justice to it...they appear to be relaxed and comfortable with the music, and they are clearly enjoying the experience.

While so many productions of Into the Woods and other large-scale musicals rely on lavish sets and special effects, Mr. Foster wisely chose to use the small Cloverdale Playhouse stage to its best advantage: provide simple and imaginative set pieces (thanks to scenic designer Layne Holley), reduce the number of actors to thirteen for the more than twenty characters in the play, create effective and clever costumes (headed by Eleanor Davis), and allow the acting company to focus the attention on the plot, the themes, and the music.

With Mr. Foster at the keyboard onstage (the sole musical accompaniment -- and really all that is needed), this talented ensemble go through their paces for over two and a half hours without any lapse of energy or commitment, creating memorable renditions of their fairy tale roles, and enlivening the evening with insightful interpretations of the songs and themes.

Everyone, it seems, has a dream or a wish to fulfill: Cinderella wants to go to the King's Festival where she will meet her Prince, Rapunzel yearns for freedom from her tower, Little Red Riding Hood is on her way to Grandma's house, Jack has to sell his "pet" cow Milky White to make ends meet at home, and the Baker and his Wife desperately want a child, but have been cursed by the Witch who will only lift the curse if the Baker can bring her "a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold" -- so everyone sets off "into the woods" on specific quests that get more and more intertwined to both comic and serious ends.

The original stories contain significant lessons, mixed with comic and sometimes macabre events, and Into the Woods capitalizes on this. And when actors give it their all, audiences can get caught up in each moment.

Versatility is an important element of this production. What a delight to see Jonathan Conner and Scott Page as two narcissistic princes whose mugging and one-upmanship is so cleverly showcased in their duet "Agony", but also to see each actor in a completely different guise: Mr. Conner as a frighteningly sexy Wolf to Katie Maiello's shoot from the hip Little Red Riding Hood, and Mr. Page as a most believably devoted Milky White Cow to Matthew Walter's exuberantly naive Jack (as in the Beanstalk).

Bill Cobb as the Mysterious Man keeps popping up throughout the play to deliver clues and urge characters on -- no spoiler alerts here; you'll have to see the play to discover what the mystery is all about.

A masterful handling of Sondheim's fast patter lyrics is given in the opening exposition by David Rowland as the Witch, and carried often by other members of the ensemble. Mr. Rowland's interpretation of the double role of the Witch who transforms to Rapunzel's Mother is mesmerizing; the darkness he brings to the role is made palatable by the insistence that Rapunzel is kept in the tower to protect her from the evils of the world. Brittney Johnson as Rapunzel dares to risk it by running off with her Prince. -- And it seems that there are significant prices to pay for their actions.

Several lessons are learned by the characters, lessons that can benefit all of us. Act I ends on a note of some hope, but Act II demonstrates the lengths to which we will go to achieve our goals or desires will all have consequences.

The Baker [Chase McMichen in his best performance yet in Montgomery] and his Wife [Emily Lowder Wooten; her first role at the Playhouse that sets a high bar for what is to come] are so intent on getting the aforementioned "" that they manage to con Jack into selling Milky White for a sack of beans, try to steal Little Red's cape, cut some of Rapunzel's hair, and swipe Cinderella's slipper. Ever at odds with one another, their arguing threatens the relationship, and the Wife even has a fling with one of the Princes who excuses his behavior saying he was brought up to be "charming, not sincere". -- And when the inevitable Beanstalk brings down the Giants' wrath, the blame game begins with a vengeance.

There is definitely "something about the woods" that is different from their regular lives. It is a magical place where defenses are down and things aren't always what they seem. Cinderella [Gillian Lisenby Walters, whose comic pratfalls are hilarious ] learns that her fantasy Prince can't provide anything more than fleeting happiness; and her nasty Stepmother [Katherine Taylor] and Stepsisters [Summer Gagnon and Brittney Johnson] will get their deserved comeuppance; Jack and his Mother [Eleanor Kerr Davis has a few delightfully feisty moments] learn that family is what matters most, and that ill-gotten riches (golden eggs and harps) looted from the Giants are only transitory.

Growing up is hard, and not everyone can do it. Being responsible is important, but not everyone is cut out for it. Doing what is right rather than what is convenient is essential. We influence others by what we do and say: "Children will listen", after all.