Into the Woods- Grimm But Not Grim
Time to confess: I can be a real cranky ho ho whore when it comes to the annual butts-in-the-seats-athon known as “the holiday musical”. I refer to that magical time of year when generally respected theaters get panicky about how they’re going to fund next season’s “real plays” and throw their brains out with the bathwater. This is where you’ll start to see a whole lot of Cinderella and Camelot and Fiddler on the Roof – it can get a little pandering. Of course, I’m not a big fan of musical theater in the first place. Or, more honestly, it’s that even as a bitch-in-training I desperately tried to distance myself from the type of individual who is into musical theater. I remember plenty of high-school trips to Broadway where I witnessed packs of roving fangirls (hate to generalize, but this really is more a girl thing) wearing achingly handmade glittery t-shirts proclaiming things like “Phan of Phantom!” or “Team Eponine” absolutely losing their shit when Mrs. Lovett or Mr. Mistoffelees or Velma took the stand – and I found it all so embarrassing. I say this so we’re clear about where I was when I sat down to watch Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim currently playing at Spotlighters. This is a fractured fairytale deal – in the first act we meet the Baker and the Baker’s Wife who are absolutely desperate to spawn. They appeal to the Witch next door and she tells them they need to go “into the woods” to find four magical objects for her before she will help them: the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn and the slipper as pure as gold. Of course, all this is a set up to take us through some familiar favorites: Jack and the Giant Bean Stalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Cinderella. This first act presents these chestnuts pretty straight: maybe the Wolf is a little more rapey than you remember, Rapunzel a little more traumatized, Cinderella a little less enthusiastic about marrying Prince Charming. In the second act we take a left turn from Fairylandville into Consequencetown. Things get more serious as the characters step out of their stories and start experiencing the ever after not so happily. If all this feels a little been there done that, well, that’s not surprising. Remixed fairy tales have been having a moment for quite some time now: from Wicked on Broadway to Once Upon a Time and Grimm on TV to the Shrek franchise and Tangled you can’t tap your fucking heels together without hitting some or other “notDisneynotDisneyNOTDISNEY” (even when it is Disney) adaptation. Sondheim did it before it was cool, 1986 style, but you really can’t produce this play today without at least acknowledging that we’re kind of sparkled out. But I digress, I digress. As soon as I heard Spotlighters was doing this show I wondered how on earth Fuzz Roark was going to clown car this eighteen person cast onto their famously teensy tiny stage – but clown car it he does. Roark has been working with this space long enough that he can turn the goddamned four giant support poles (OH HELLO MY OLD FRIENDS) into, well, if not an asset, at least a workable playing space and if you think that isn’t impressive you fucking try it. There are times when the actors are sort of dizzily revolving in place as if they’re on a human powered turntable but at least I could see what was going on most of the time so we’re going to count it a win. Now, as is usual with musicals, especially on the small stage, the vocal power on display from the entire cast was stellar – the acting maybe not so much. But really, who gives a shit if Cinderella (Meryem Ahmadian) is a touch wooden and the Baker’s Wife (Tiffany Spaulding) a little unfocused in the blahblahblah parts? Once they start singing, you’ll stop caring. That being said, there were some exceptions to the rule. I got a kick out of Isabel Gordon – this kid is an absolute delight to watch onstage and her Little Red is equal parts adorable and really kind of scary (she ends up wearing the wolf) with a great, great voice. Michael Rostek’s turn as the Baker left me, dare I say it, close to fangirl fucking misty in the almost-a-finale powerhouse ballad “No More”. And I quite liked Sean Dynan’s beautiful but blank-eyed and slow of mind Jack. I was slow to warm up to Evangeline Ridgaway at the beginning – her Witch just didn’t seem to have the confidence to really stick the landing. Also (and she wasn’t the only actor to have this problem) Sondheim’s staccato lyrics demand perfect enunciation or things get muddy fast. The giant hood that is necessary for the Witch’s midway transformation didn’t help things, either. By the end, though, gotta say, girlfriend sold me. Among the supporting cast I OMG LOVED the two hilariously handsome wags playing the assholic Prince Charming duo (Juan Rodriguez and Brian Kraszewski playing Cinderella’s and Rapunzel’s Prince respectively) – just screamingly funny-watch Kraszewki when he hears his lady love shriek one time too many- and both with real strong pipes to back it up. Rodriguez also plays the pleasingly rockstarish and uncomfortably predatory wolf to the hilt. High notes in both senses were also hit by some blind mice Stepsisters (Autumn Boyle and Rachel Verhaaren) and Patrick Gorirossi’s anal retentive Steward. Set (Alan Zemla) and costumes (Laura Nicholson) were both fairytale lush and rich looking if not particularly original. The (live!) pit orchestra was phenomenal – props to Musical Director Michael Tan.
Bottom line: Even this confirmed musical eye roller has to admit: this was fun and frankly pretty impressive in places. If you absolutely have to have your holiday spectacle I say skip A Christmas Carol and fuck The Nutcracker – go see Into the Woods.
Running at Spotlighters until December 22nd
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