POSTED ON JULY 2, 2008:
Better Hang On
Into the Woods takes audience on emotional rollercoaster
Mood Changes. The dominant themes of the first act are dreams and love. Murder, infidelity, doubt and terror reign in the second act.
Light Opera Oklahoma's Into the Woods, directed by Eric Gibson, is a mix of fractured fairy tales in which characters intermingle, helping and hindering each other as they pursue their wishes.
The fairy tales that collide in this musical include "Jack & the Beanstalk," "Little Red Riding Hood," "Rapunzel," "Cinderella," and others.
The main plot, however, follows the baker and his wife and their want for a child. They consult a witch to learn how to undo the curse of barrenness on their family. She tells them to find certain objects that characters in other fairy tales possess and to steal them away.
Though these thefts threaten to ruin the classic outcomes of these fairy tales, all is set right by the end of the first act. In fact, everything seems so right that some people assume the first act is actually the musical's end.
The second act opens with the song "So Happy," but they are not to live happily ever after. Cracks appear in their perfect endings and when the giant's wife descends from the clouds to take revenge on Jack for her husband's murder, things get much, much more dangerous.
The dominant themes of the first act are dreams and love. Murder, infidelity, doubt and terror reign in the second act.
The shift of tone between the two acts was not as clear as I would have liked. The first act was lots of fun with lots of laughs, just as it should be. Consequences are light and temporary at this point; theft and the deaths of the wolf and the giant are treated with winks and smiles.
Key dramatic moments in the second act, on the other hand, seemed as if they were played for laughs. Perhaps not. But whether or not the laughs were intended, these moments prompted laughter and lessened the second act's impact.
Specifically, I mean the sacrifice of the narrator to the giant and the murder of Jack's mother. These moments seemed slapstick.
On the other hand, other key moments had a much greater impact and the mood turned somber. April Golliver as the Witch slides up and down her vocal register, squealing and cackling with wicked glee. She's hammy and a lot of fun in the first act. After the giant's wife murders her daughter, however, Golliver drops the shtick and sings "Lament" with genuine grief. Likewise, her "Last Midnight" is a rolling tirade fueled by anger and malice. The sudden shift in the witch's personality draws a line between the worlds of childish dreams and of adult realities.
"No One Is Alone" is an equally powerful performance by all four of its actors. Little Red Riding Hood (Jenna Harris) confesses to Cinderella (Manna Nichols) that she doesn't believe her mother would condone their plan to murder the giantess. Meanwhile, Jack (Kyle A. Dougan) argues with the baker (Ron Loyd) about whether he should kill the king's steward who took his mother's life. Like "Your Fault," which the foursome also performs, these characters have weighty matters of right and wrong on their hands, but have no easy answer.
What Cinderella and the baker can offer these children, however, proves just as valuable as an answer: friendship-even in the face of uncertainty-can provide stability and strength.
Nichols, who experienced some projection issues earlier in the production, had no such trouble during this song. These actors' vocal harmony moved me.
I didn't have any trouble following their thoughts, either. I was never confused about what they wanted or why. I especially liked Dougan's sudden obsession with killing the steward and the subsequent argument with the baker about the morality of that decision. Loyd, too, did well playing the baker's frustration at not being able to explain the why's and wherefores of morality.
Harris experiences a similar confusion earlier in the play after the wolf devoured her. Following her rescue, she describes the thrill of danger. She communicates the song's idea with clearly defined emotions.
This experience, for her character, translates directly into her fondness for her hunting knife in the second act. While much of the stage business involving this knife is funny, it's never hammy. It comes from an emotionally honest place.
On the other hand, the portrayal of Red's grandmother as a cigarette-y, Scotch-drinking hag-and having her played by a man-caused some inappropriate laughs during choral moments.
On the other, other hand, I loved the wolf envisioned as a dangerous street hood. James Rollins has a blast with this role, and we do too.
The two princes (Patrick Howle and James J. Rollins) are highly successful, especially in the reprise of "Agony."
For me, the show's gem is Andrea Leap as the baker's wife. I enjoyed her performance in The Pirates of Penzance as the police sergeant, but here she really gets the chance to spread her wings. Leap is clear as a bell in her voice and her emotional and physical lives. There's never any doubt about what she is doing or saying. And she enunciates Sondheim's tricky patter so well. Leap is precisely the kind of actress Sondheim loved in his musicals: smart, bold and clear.
This production of Into the Woods succeeds despite a few hitches. The orchestration seemed too even for this score, with its sudden shifts of mood, character, and tempo. Onstage, too, the change of moods between the first act and second act was not as crisp as it could have been. And a few inappropriate laughs here and there detract slightly from the performance.
But it is a good production of a great musical. A ticket to Into the Woods is money well spent.
And if you enjoyed Dougan and Harris in this musical (you should), check out the final of four cabaret performances featuring both the wit of Noel Coward and songs from new Broadway musicals on July 6.
For more information, visit www.lightoperaok.org or call 583-4267.
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