The Muse Machine boldly charts its own artistic course with Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s masterful Tony Award-winning 1987 fractured fairy tale opus “Into the Woods,” the arts education organization’s 27th annual student musical that opened Thursday, January 13 at the Victoria Theatre.
The definitive Sondheim pedigree of less is more has been given a significant makeover by Muse organizers, which will likely delight the masses and perturb Sondheads. Choreographer Lula Elzy, known for transforming the ordinary, doesn’t hesitate to incorporate movement into these “Woods,” which begins with the cast enjoying the king’s festival accented with villagers twirling ribbons and somersaulting. This unique introduction, dubbed “I Wish,” serviceably energizes the action and reiterates the sense of community that is vital to the piece before the colorful prologue launches the show as intended. Elzy also scores with the inclusion of a celebratory ball prior to the “Ever After” Act 1 finale. However, in Act 2, the added routines steal focus. The “Agony” reprise is interrupted by a puzzling sequence devoted to Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, and “Last Midnight,” typically a prominent vocal showcase, is stripped of its dramatic power by a distracting sea of swirling cloaked dancers.
Still, on the whole, director Rufus Bonds Jr., helming with fluidity, ensures that the witty, thought-provoking characterizations which define “Woods” and its engrossing exploration of consequences, family, fulfillment, loss and survival is not hindered or overshadowed by the choreography. In fact, the principal cast impressively handles the complexities inherent in Sondheim’s brilliant score and Lapine’s insightful libretto.
The very engaging Micah Trout, possessing a lovely tenor, is terrifically understated as the Baker, particularly filling the heartbreaking beauty of “No More” with moving sincerity. Trout is perfectly paired with Mary Kate O’Neill, whose impeccably crafted, pleasantly sung performance as the Baker’s Wife fully reveals the complicated depths of a woman willing to do what it takes in order to have a child. O’Neill and Trout’s charming rendition of “It Takes Two” warmly depicts the excitement of rekindled romance. Samantha Eastman’s penchant for comedy serves her well as the Witch, but she lacks the vocal prowess that could take her crowd-pleasing portrayal and superbly written solos to another level.
“Despite the Muse’s conceptually risky adaptations, ‘Woods’ still resonates…”
In addition, Bradley Farmer, the scene stealing Lina Lamont in last year’s Muse production of “Singin’ in the Rain,” supplies a cheery, radiant elegance as Cinderella and wonderfully executes “On the Steps of the Palace,” one of the most challenging numbers. Equally strong are Carly Snyder as Little Red Ridinghood, Davis Sullivan as Jack, Ian Benjamin as the Wolf, Madeline Shelton as a refreshingly crazed Rapunzel, Trevor Coran as Cinderella’s Prince, Coleman Hemsath as
Rapunzel’s Prince, Noah Berry as the Mysterious Man, Rachel Snyder as Jack’s Mother, Leigha Witt as Cinderella’s Stepmother, Amanda Koslow as Florinda, Kaja Burke-Williams as Lucinda, Rob Mitchell as the Steward, Allison Janney as the Giant, and the narrator team of CJ Destefani, Mitchell Rawlins, Cameron Elliot, Daniel Baughn and the aforementioned Benjamin. Carly Snyder’s marvelously reflective “I Know Things Now,” Sullivan’s endearing “Giants in the Sky” Benjamin’s sharp and funny “Hello, Little Girl” and Coran and Hemsath’s hilarious “Agony” join “On the Steps of the Palace” as excellent, lyric-driven Act 1 highlights.
Musical director David Dusing’s solid orchestra, Paul Wonsek’s attractively detailed set (courtesy of the Pittsburgh CLO), John Rensel’s evocative lighting and David Sherman’s incredibly ominous, thundering sound design are also noteworthy.
Despite the Muse’s conceptually risky adaptations, “Woods” still resonates. The universal epiphany that “wishes come true – not free” certainly stings with truth.
Into the Woods continues through Sunday, January 16 at the Victoria Theatre, 138 N. Main St. Performances will be held today at 3 and 8 p.m. and tomorrow at 2 p.m. Act One: 1 hour and 23 minutes. Act Two: 1 hour and 9 minutes. Tickets are $31-$56. For tickets or more information, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit online at www.ticketcenterstage.com