Into the Woods, Book by James Lapine. Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Directed and choreographed by John Saunders. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"Quit while you're ahead, I always say."
Libby Bruno and Paul Wyatt; photo: provided
When the Wolf vomits up Little Red Ridinghood and her grandmother after his belly has been slit by the Baker in James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim's fairy-tale musical, "Into the Woods," the fun has only just begun. This time the fun takes place at the Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, New York, where Artistic Director John Saunders has created an absolutely wonderful environment around his theater-in-the-round stage to house this world where Giants can roam free and witches can be transformed as well as transformative. A company of 25 players fill the stage with room left over for imagination to run rampant. Saunders has performed a miracle moving this piece from a traditional fourth wall proscenium format into this nearly collaborative piece with the audience playing along as tree stumps and shrubs.
Saunders usual flair for staging important moments with no one left out of the perfect visual line has given over slightly to using the space in the best way possible and this presents a few dangers as laughs bubble up across the theater from where some of us sat bemused and confused for a moment, but it is partially his genius for the form that in no time flat the joke had made its way to the "wrong" side of the physical setup. Saunders' understanding of how in the round demands fight with logic is abetted by a superior company of players who make the great reality of 360 degree visuals pay off for each and every moment in this three hour extravaganza.
As the Baker and his wife, this company offers us Paul Wyatt and Libby Bruno, both fine actors and singers and Bruno is an exceptional movement person, providing the Baker's Wife with some superbly beautiful moments. She lacks something in the sardonic delivery department but the usual cynical verbiage associated with this character has been replaced with a more loving attitude that was very pleasant. In need of emotional support even when his chauvinistic side is showing, the Baker, played effectively here by Paul Wyatt, produces the best sympathy spots in the show. We feel his plight which is not over-presented as I've seen it before. Instead there is a natural reality about the most unnatural and unreal scenario. Both actors here do the blessed chore of making their stock figures real.
Equally real was Bridget Elise Yingling as Little Red Ridinghood; so real you wanted to slap her now and then. Stephen Millett was a very tall, little boy as Jack and was still convincing in the role. Meg Dooley played his mother and she was fine in that part. Cinderella's stepmother was a perfect witch as played by Erin Spears Ledford, and her two horrid daughters were well defined by Viveca Chow and Emily Louise Franklin.
The other three principal female characters were delicious in their roles: Rapunzel was the vocally lyrical Beatrice Crosbie; Cinderella was willowy and graceful Amy Laviolette; The Witch was played by the dynamic and versatile Julia Mosby. The two princes were sweetly arrogant and insolent in the talented hands of Conor Robert Fallon and Pat Moran. As the voice of the Giant Kelsey Woods was properly demanding.
Jamie Grayson was the natty narrator in his white suit; he was also the Mysterious Man and his costume changes and character shifts were brilliantly timed. As the man who sets the tone of the show Grayson has been given just the right voice and focus by Saunders and our proximity in this theater to the action is established at the onset of Grayson's first entrance.
The environment, full walls of woods, was designed by Kevin Gleason and it truly gets you involved even before the show begins. Jimm Halliday's fanciful costumes are so pretty you want to reach out and touch the magic flowing past your eyes. Andrew Gmoser's usually great lighting is even more perfect than usual. Josh D. Smith leads his five-piece ensemble through the difficult and complicated music as though they have lived with it all their lives.
With each of this company's shows this season I wonder how it could get any better and then they show me how. I urge Saunders, et al, to not follow the dictum of the show's line that opens this review: do NOT quit while you're ahead. Continue to top yourselves.
Into the Woods plays at the Mac-Haydn Theater, 1925 Route 203, Chatham, NY through August 7. For information and tickets, call the bos office 518-392-9292 or go on line at www.machaydntheatre.org.