Happily ever after… Isn’t that how all the stories end? Sondheim mixes several fairy tales into one to explore not just what it takes to get to happily ever after, but what happens after the happily ever after. Blending together the stories of Jack (Arthur Clifford) and the Beanstalk; Cinderella (Courtney Koval), Rapunzel (Rachel Adcock) and Little Red Riding Hood (Catie Wolf), throw in a Baker (Tony Francisco) and his Wife (Alyson Golladay) who want to have a child plus a Narrator (Reed Uthe) and mix in a Witch (Wendy Musick) for good measure and you have the makings of a rather fractured fairy tale.
The first act focuses on the stories we know and love. The stories intertwine when each of the characters must go “into the woods” as part of their story, told with the assistance of the Narrator. What ties them together is the Baker and his wife’s quest for a child. The witch next door put a spell on the Baker’s parents when he was a baby to make his line bear no fruit when his father took some beans (yes, magic beans) from her garden for his pregnant wife. The witch sends the Baker into the woods to gather things from the other story lines. If he can deliver by midnight on the third day, she will lift the curse. Musick is truly impressive as the Witch. She channels a lot of what Bernadette Peters did when she originated the role on Broadway, but adds enough of her own to make it work for her. Vocally, Musick shines in the complex music that is both lyrical and almost rap like at times. Francisco’s Baker fell short of capturing the essence of the Baker. He is the emotional arc of this show and carries much of the story. It’s a complex role that has many challenges and I would have liked to have seen more of the evolution of his character. Golladay as his wife had a strong voice, but also didn’t quite pull us in.
At the same time, Jack is sent by his mother (Ruth Baum Bigus) to sell his dear pet cow Milky White for money for food. Clifford’s Jack is bursting with personality and he captures the mercurial adolescence perfectly. He sang well but I often had trouble hearing him over the orchestra. It seemed to be more of a mic level issue than a vocal issue but it detracted from the performance.
Cinderella wants to go to the ball but her Stepmother (Mariah Boothe) and step sisters Florinda (Haley Knudsen) and Lucinda (Ariel Talacko) are intent to keep her home. Knudsen and Talacko are hilarious as the step sisters. They embody the characters as well as Sondheim’s over the top characterizations. Koval shines as Cinderella in both acts. She is adept with the music and her character, despite making some very nontraditional turns in the second act story, is very compelling.
And we can’t forget the naive Little Red Riding Hood and her tragic journey into the woods. She is stopped by the Wolf (Tom Nelson) who also plays Cinderella’s Prince. He convinces her to take her time getting to Grandmother’s (Wendy Bross) house so he can get there first. Nelson sang well, but in the iconic Hello, Little Girl he fell short in the performance by not differentiating enough between the inner dialogue and outer charismatic wolf. Wolff (yes, it’s ironic her last name is Wolff) was spunky as Little Red and handled the music well.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention Adcock was a standout as Rapunzel. This is the case of a small role that, when committed to completely, makes a big impression. Not only does she have a beautiful voice, but I loved her character. She also captured the necessary larger than life character that Sondheim required.
Rounding out the cast are Tom Nelson as Rapunzel’s Prince, Ray Zarr as Cinderella’s father and Raheem Fieldler-Bey as the Steward of the Royal Family.
Director Chris McCoy has cast some very talented vocalists, which is a prerequisite for this difficult Sondheim music. I found the staging to be rather uninspired with many characters pacing about or just looking at the audience despite having people on stage they were talking with. Ben Kramer’s scenic design was beautiful and created many options for blocking. It incorporated all the different scenes on stage which alleviated the need for lengthy scene changes, which McCoy took advantage of to make the show flow seamlessly.
This is very fun show and a worthwhile production. One aspect that fell short was the overall character arcs. While everyone sounded great and Musical Director Langston Hemenway did well with this complex music, the performers often didn’t convey enough of the emotion to reach this size of a house. While the first act requires an almost over the top characteristic, the second act delves more into what we do when we get what we think we want and then find out it’s not what we really need. And when the story is placed in the characters hands later in the second act, there is a lot of struggling with their own mortality and true test of character that didn’t come across.
Into the Woods plays Sunday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:30 through July 14th. For tickets or more information go to KC Stage.
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