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Thursday, November 08, 2018

The Woods So Wild

JAMES LAPINE’S BOOK for the musical “Into the Woods” drew on the work of Bruno Bettelheim and Joseph Campbell to fashion a narrative that captured a number of seemingly disparate stories and intertwined them. Seemingly, because these stories all address a handful of fundamental fears, and, like all timeless storytelling, seek to offer some manner of comfort.

Gabriella Garcia and Celena Vera Morgan
Photo by Jazelle Photography
“The woods” offers the perfect hostile environment. It’s a place beyond cultivation; its native inhabitants are untamed. It’s a place of massive growth and what seems to be tangled confusion. In short, it’s an extension of our own fevered imaginations. But where, really, are the terrors today? I’d hazard the living room as potentially nasty place, being home to domestic conflict and that greatest of fearmongers, the TV set. Certainly it was terrifying to me to grow up with parents sparring nightly in knock-down-drag-outs, and I’ve had my own share of direct participation in squabbles since.

A pleasant living room (or gallery room, or performance space – call it as you will) provided the space for nine actors and a small audience group to engage in an up-close spectacle of a journey that (somewhat didactically) reminds us that storytelling is everything. That we must guide the children we bring into this world. And that witches aren’t necessarily all that bad.

When the Stephen Sondheim musical opened on Broadway in 1987, it featured a star turn for Bernadette Peters on a fancy set with magic effects throughout. As presented recently at Nancy Manocherian’s The Cell Theatre on West 23rd Street, the production was bare-bones, compact, more than ever an ensemble piece – although Brian Charles Rooney’s excellent portrayal of the Witch lacked none of the needed larger-than-life characteristics.

The audience is scattered throughout the playing area, but there’s no theatrical law that says you shouldn’t have to crane your neck from time to time. The narrator’s role is spread among the ensemble, who give an introduction that weaves through one of the most intricate opening numbers in all of musical theater. It’s not only lyrically complex, but also introduces the musical elements that will be developed through the course of the piece. In other words, Sondheim at his most accomplished.

And so we meet Cinderella (Alie B. Gorrie); Jack of beanstalk fame (Alaina Mills), his mother (Amara J. Brady) and their cow, Milky-White (just about everyone at one time or another); Red Riding Hood (Celena Vera Morgan); the Baker from whom she snags some treats (Katherine Yacko), and his wife (Alicia Krakauer). The last two were created for this story, and their wish for a child leads them to discover that a witch’s curse has caused their barrenness. 

They – along with Gabriella Garcia and Sydney Ronis, who complete the cast – inhabit that opening brilliantly, leading the action throughout the two playing-area levels as they let us know what’s in store both in terms of story and stagecraft. I worry when the instrumental forces are small, but in this room pianist Anessa Marie and violinist Julia Jung Un Suh turned the score into an affecting salon piece, greatly enhanced by the fiddle’s long tones and legato.

Act One follows the various journeys that lead these characters into the woods, where we also meet Rapunzel (Gorrie again), who turns out to be the Witch’s daughter. She’s courted by a Prince, no surprise, as is Cinderella, and such pursuits can be hell even on royalty as the charming, wickedly witty duet “Agony” proves when sung by the two (Brady and Ronis). (It’s reprised in the second act with even more perplexing problems, as well as my favorite couplet, sung of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty: “While they lie there for years / And you cry on their biers.”)

While I’ve enjoyed many productions of this piece, I’ve longed believed that the role of the Baker’s Wife belonged only to Joanna Gleason, whom I saw in the Broadway original. As one of the songs in the show puts it, “No More.” Krakauer is a marvel in the part, mining every nuance of dialogue and characterization, and navigating Sondheim’s challenging score with ease. Her rapid-fire doubling as the Mysterious Man is equally effective.

Which is not to diminish anyone else in the cast. As you can see from the credits, we’re not worrying about gender specificity here, nor should we be. So what if it’s Gabriella Garcia as the Wolf? Hasn’t a woman as much right as a man to be a feral pedovore? (Garcia also plays a mean Mean Stepsister.) And Morgan gives Riding Hood a credible self-absorption (and terrific singing voice) that is forced to mature as circumstances sour.

Act Two is the surprise of the piece, where the consequences of self-absorbed and reckless actions are realized. Jack’s first-act song “Giants in the Sky” is an endearing showcase for Mills, but this character has caused there to be an angry giant on the ground, seeking revenge. When time Gorrie begins the eleven o’clock number, “No One Is Alone,” I can assure you that no one will be dry-eyed, either.

The costumes, by Rien Schlecht, featured decorative aspects that might have been fashioned in a child’s art class, but nicely done, complementing the nursery-tale nature of the component stories, and it played out on a set with the merest suggestion of foliage. To choreograph and direct in such a space is challenge enough, and those credits go to Marisa Kirby and Ethan Paulini respectively. But this production played in two other spaces before arriving here: at the Jefferson Market Library from Oct. 26 to 28, and at the Rizzoli Bookstore Oct. 30-Nov. 1. The Cell Theatre run runs through Nov. 9, but let’s be looking for more from Out of the Box Theatrics, which tells you about itself at this website.

Into the Woods
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Lapine
Directed by Ethan Paulini
Music Director: Anessa Marie
Out of the Box Theatrics
The Cell Theatre, 338 W. 23rd St., New York, NY
November 7, 2018

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