Characters go “Into the Woods” in Sondheim musical

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By Bob Evans

Favorite fairy tale characters come to life in the Stephen Sondheim Broadway success, “Into the Woods” that opened July 6 for seven performances this weekend and next, with a stellar cast, beautiful costumes, great sets, and beautiful orchestration and sound design–all happening at Shawnee Mission Theatre in the Park’s outdoor facility.

Showtime, at 8:30 means a late night, but by then the sun descends and the outdoor area cools. With a gentle breeze, the park atmosphere makes for a great venue for family fun and enjoyment as patrons bring blankets, lawn chairs, coolers, and food to enjoy before and after the show. Theatre in the Park’s new chairs replace the low chairs from the past season and a new added feature, rental folding chairs, definitely creates a new bonus.

“Into the Woods” is a Stephen Sondheim story about what really happens that Fairy Tales do not fully explain. Sondheim takes characters that people know and spin them into a new musical format to tell the story of what bad things can happen when you go into the woods. Expect to see Cinderella, her father, the Baker, the Baker’s wife, Jack (from Jack and the Beanstalk), Little Red Riding Hood and her Granny, Rapunzel, the Big Bad Wolf, a couple of singing princes, and a mean-spirited witch.

An old adage: “Be careful what you wish for…” takes center stage in this story because wishes have consequences–and they are not always pleasant. And, unfortunately retelling these stories are fun reminders of everyone’s youth, but the show is long, laborious, and a staging monster. Yes, Theatre in the Park and director Chris McCoy make it look fresh and rich with their theatrical tricks, good acting, and strong production team all focuses on delivering a good performance.

“James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim take everyone’s favorite storybook characters and bring them together for a timeless, yet relevant, piece… and a rare modern classic,” Theatre in the Park said. “The Tony Award-winning book and score are both enchanting and touching.

“The story follows a Baker and his wife, who wish to have a child; Cinderella, who wishes to attend the King’s Festival; and Jack, who wishes his cow would give milk. When the Baker and his wife learn that they cannot have a child because of a Witch’s curse, the two set off on a journey to break the curse. Everyone’s wish is granted, but the consequences of their actions return to haunt them later with disastrous results,” Theatre in the Park continued.

The show is more adult oriented than child focused, so do not expect a lot of action or interest from younger attendees. The show begins at 8:30 and Act I runs about 100 minutes. At intermission, watching the younger audience members, they were restless and showing signs of wearing out.

And, then there is the music. Sondheim’s score is intricate and challenging. The orchestra gives a beautiful performance of Sondheim’s genius, and the vocal performances just send the music to elevated heights. With the orchestration and outstanding voices, “Into the Woods” delivers of the main elements of musical theatre.

“Into the Woods” follows the old classic musical comedy formula. Act I runs about 90 minutes, and Act II is shorter. The show begins at 8:30 and runs (with intermission) until 11:30. Even though this was the formula for Broadway musicals, newer shows do not run as long. The characters for “Into the Woods” are mostly favorites for Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Riding Hood, Grandmother, and the Wolf tell one story. Cinderella presents the more gruesome tale of the original story. Jack and the Beanstalk gives yet another story, but with some artistic license. Then, there is the central story of a Baker, the Baker’s Wife, and a Witch. The only reference to the character is about “the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker.” The butcher is mentioned; the candlestick maker omitted; and the Butcher and his Wife become the central characters in this play. But, the main character that effects the whole story is the evil witch.

Some of the elements make no sense, but this is a fairy tale, so that’s okay. Artistic license, fairy tales, and creativity all blend well. “Into the Woods” mixes them well. The orchestration presents a challenge. The delivery of the instrumental accompaniment was beautifully directed my music director/conductor Langston Hememway. His orchestra gave a strong opening night performance.

The orchestration for this Theatre in the Park show plays with music to create a unique challenge for actors. The orchestration is one piece and the libretto another. This is not a case of the singer singing along with the music. The music and the lyric are unrelated. Give thanks for beautiful vocal performances who deliver the melody while the accompaniment is a different piece of the creative process.

Casting for this show provided a strong cast of actors with voices to match their characters. Even smaller characters in the show had superior voices to deliver the goods. Rachel Adcock’s pure soprano gave Rapunel the perfect touch. As the two princes, Thomas Nelson and Carson Tate provided the comic buffoonery with their song “Agony” and brought arrogance to new heights.

Cinderella could not be better acted or voiced than Courtney Koval’s interpretation of the role. Her voice, always clear and resonant, seemed perfect for her character of Cinderella. (And what young girl does not want to be Cinderella?) As the Witch, Wendy Musick provides the mischief, the magic, the spells, the chemistry to tie the whole production together. Her acting and vocals combine to make the Witch the unquestionable lead in the show. Music uses her vocal range for belting out both low register and crisp soprano notes. Jack gives the audience someone to watch every time he’s on stage. Arthur Clifford makes Jack the focus of each of his varied scenes. His movements, his expressions, his intonations, his vocal delivery–all keep the focus on him when on stage. Actors beware: Clifford can steal any scene. He was the standout on opening night.

The cast for “Into the Woods could not be better suited for their roles. None gave a bad performance. And in unity, they worked as a well-tuned ensemble, thanks to director Chris McCoy’s vision of the musical. McCoy brought out the best from his cast.

Providing the scenic design of this show helped with the flow, immensely. The sets moved and changed with ease making the show move well. Great costumes, makeup, and wigs helped give the characters flair. Cinderella’s ball gowns were elegant. The Witch costumes were outstanding. The wigs were fun in matching with the fairy-tale theme. As the sun set, the darkness allowed the lighting design to be more effective. Sound was mostly good, but there were some technical glitches on opening night which will be corrected for subsequent shows.

But, as in many shows, sometimes a problem occurs with no way out. Such was the cast with “Into the Woods.” Yes, it’s true a major glitch could have put a damper on some outdoor/theatre fun. The pop corn machine expired before the show began. Those strident popcorn-eating audience members who did not get their salty goodness early went without. Yes, even with the famous $1 bucket refills screaming “Fill me up,” alas, no fill happened. Another technical glitch for the staff to focus. But, be not afraid. Artistic director Tim Bair announced the death of the popcorn machine and it’s resurrection (a new machine) planned for the second night of the weekend. Yes, Saturday night fans, bring your buckets and anticipation.

The cast for “Into the Woods” is: Baker, Tony Francisco; Baker’s Wife, Alyson Golladay; Jack, Arthur Clifford; Cinderella, Courtney Koval; Little Red Ridinghood, Catie Wolff; Narrator/Mysterious Man, Reed Uthe; Jack’s Mother, Ruth Baum Bigus; Witch, Wendy Musick; Cinderella’s Prince/Wolf, Thomas Nelson; Rapunzel’s Prince, Carson Tate; Rapunzel, Rachel Adcock; Cinderella’s Stepmother, Mariah Boothe; Florinda, Haley Knudsen; Lucinda, Ariel Talacko; Cinderella’s Mother/Granny, Wendy Bross; Steward, Raheem Fielder Bey; Cinderella’s Father, Ray Zarr.

Production Staff for “Into the Woods” is lead by Director, Chris McCoy. His staff includes:
Musical Director/Conductor, Langston Hemenway; Accompanist, Brant Challacombe; Costume/Props Designer, Tam Osgood; Hair and Make-up Designer, John Hollan; Scenic Designer, Ben Kramer; Lighting Designer, Elizabeth Kennell; Sound Designer, Chase Roush;
Stage Manager, Hannah Parker; Asst. Stage Manager, Brian Percival; Asst. Stage Manager, Michael Ricketts.

The orchestra is led by Conductor/Music Director, Langston Hemenway. The orchestra members are: piano (primary accompanist), Brant Challacombe; synthesizer, Edwin Fukunaga; violin 1, Bruce Williams; violin 2, Stephen Gedert; viola, Jason Rideout; cello/associate accompanist, Rachel Chase; bass, Frank Annechini; flute/piccolo, Crystal Kimmel; clarinet, Amy Jantz; bassoon, Danielle Mays; trumpet, Andrea Rogers, Austin Wakat; horn, Kayla Wood; percussion, Brett Butler.

“Into the Woods” opened Friday, July 6 at Shawnee Mission Theatre in the Park and continues two weekends for a total of seven performances. Show dates are: July 6, 7, 8, 11, 12, 13, 14. For advance tickets, visit the Theatre in the Park website and look for Ticket Central to purchase tickets and chair seating. Coolers, blankets, lawn chairs welcome. Box lunches may also be purchased or attendees may bring their own food and beverages.

 

 

Tags: “Into the Woods”, Theatre in the Park”, Shawnee Mission Park”, Kansas City Theater, Kansas City Performing Arts, Kansas City Arts & Entertainment

Images courtesy of Shawnee Mission Theatre in the Park, Bob Compton Photography/Theatre in the Park and Bob Evans

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