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Review: “Into the Woods” at MCT

"Into the Woods" at Melbourne Civic Theatre

“Into the Woods” at Melbourne Civic Theatre

By Pam Harbaugh

There’s something scary out there. And your children won’t listen. And your lovers leave you when you’re only halfway through. But despite the fear, the reality and the promise of death, you can’t avoid going into the woods. After all, it’s life.

Those are only some of the motifs in Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant musical, “Into the Woods.” While it’s been on Broadway, seen productions in large regional theaters and mid-sized community theaters, here it comes to life in the small 93-seat Melbourne Civic Theatre.

Proving again that size does not matter, this theater company, led by Peg Girard and her wealth of talented designers and actors, tell this story rapturously. Glorious voices squeeze every ounce of wit, irony and pathos from Mr. Sondheim’s lyrics and music and from James Lapine’s libretto. Designers set the stage cleverly, prodding the audience’s imagination to fill in the blanks. And it all undulates theatrically with delicate, grand pace swelling into emotion.

The storyline cleverly weaves storybook characters in and out of the woods. In it, the Baker and his Wife yearn to have a baby. They go to the Witch who gives them a task involving Jack of the Beanstalk fame, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and Rapunzel. All of them learn quickly that you have to be careful for what you wish. The fairy tales blend into the human reality that is not at all “happily ever after.”

Vanessa Quigley finds a deep heart in her fearless portrayal of the Baker’s Wife. Ms. Quigley has an exquisite voice and has performed professionally. You can’t stop your own tears while she sings in her final number: “Sometimes people leave you/halfway through the wood/Do not let it grieve you/No one leaves for good./You are not alone/No one is alone.”

Opposite Ms. Quigley is Dana Blanchard, who brings deep emotion and tenderness as the Baker.

Brenda Sheets goes for it all as the Witch. She brings plenty of laughs as she stirs up the action. And, she easily handles the wickedly intricate “Witch’s Rap” which has lines such as: “I caught him in the autumn/In my garden one night!/He was robbing me, Raping me/Rooting through my rutabaga/Raiding my arugula and Ripping up my rampion/My champion! My favorite!”

Angelic-voiced Leslie Hayford is Cinderella, who, after finding her Prince Charming, discovers he’s not that charming after all. Ms. Hayford also needs congratulations for keeping a straight face while all around her are the most delightfully silly people: Pam Quenzler maintains a sour pucker throughout as the Stepmother; Stepsisters Becky Behl Hill and Emily Pickens are comically broad; and although he hasn’t much to say, Bob Gray’s goofy looks tell it all as Cinderella’s father.

The Princes Charming – there are two, one for Cinderella and one for Rapunzel – are also comically broad. Chris Rye has down pat that funny William Shatner smarmy school of acting. As Cinderella’s Prince and the Wolf, Bryce Niehaus shows off a divine voice. And, as the Wolf, he also lets his freak flag fly while seductively singing “There’s no possible way/To describe what you feel/When you’re talking to your meal.”

Jack is Daniel Grest, who sang in numerous professional settings last year touring with The American Boychoir. Donna Furfaro is Jack’s mother. Frustrated at her son’s affection for a cow, she sings “We’ve no time to sit and dither/While her withers wither with her/And no one keeps a cow for a friend.”

Tori Terhune is a bundle of joy as Little Red Riding Hood; and Evita Clowney brings yet another gorgeous voice to the stage as Rapunzel. Randy Caldwell, as both the Narrator and mysterious man, sews the action together and interacts warmly with the audience.

The action is set on designer Gary Postlethwait’s concept of fairy tale books. Rather than crowd the small stage with huge scenic units traditionally used in the show, he wisely relies on the actor’s ability to engage the audience’s imagination.

Big kudos to music director John Kurowski and choreographer Holly McFarland who keep this production moving tightly. Lighting designer Scott Sutherland brings an appropriately dark mood to the stage. Wendy Reader helps add offstage action with her sound design; and Alice Henning, head of wardrobe completes the picture.

This is a big show which absorbs you completely. It soars with big messages and unforgettable music. Going “Into the Woods” might be scary, but if you avoid it, you haven’t lived. You’ve kept your reality within the confines of a fairy tale world. Its final message, as sung by the Baker’s Wife, reminds you that people may leave you, but you’re never alone. And that’s the best kind of Happily Ever After anyone can wish for.

Interesting facts: It was an amazing 26 years ago when this musical opened on Broadway. It opened on Nov. 5, 1987 after 43 previews which had commenced Sept. 29, 1987. It won the 1988 Tony Award for best book of a musical and best original score. It also won the Drama Desk Award for outstanding musical. (Source, www.ibdb.com, Internet Broadway Database)

SIDE O’ GRITS: “Into the Woods” runs through April 28 at Melbourne Civic Theatre, 817 E. Strawbridge Ave., Melbourne. general, seniors, military and students. Call 321-723-6935 or visit www.mymct.org.