Reviewed by Nancy Oliveri
The Cider Mill Playhouse’s season opener, Into the Woods (book by James Lapine, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim), is a bold choice, and the first under the leadership of new Executive Director Gail King Belokur. With the nearly 30-year-old musical still growing in popularity and slated to be a film this Christmas, the timing was right, and, on the whole, I think the cast and crew were up to it — but with a few stumbling blocks.
Fairy tales are known for pat, “happily ever after” endings, but this musical mash-up, integrating several familiar tales into one narrative has its own kind of satisfying resolution. The fun part is anticipating just how the ensemble of colorful characters is going to reach that resolution while negotiating clever plot points and difficult music.
Into the Woods may have been a wee bit too ambitious for the Cider Mill’s intimate space, but on opening night (Sept. 18), the company eventually pulled it off. The audience, however, had to show a little patience; here’s why:
Issues with the production — directed and choreographed by Kevin Crewell — lay mainly with the physical placement on stage of the piano. Assistant musical director Kristen Gilbert played well but unfortunately drowned out a lot of the lyrics. This may have been less of a problem for audience members in the center rows, but from my perch on the far end, hearing some of the words was a struggle. I’d say that only a little more than half of the actors were articulate and loud enough to compete with the piano.
Occasionally, the cello, nicely handled by Hakan Tayga-Hromek, also was difficult to hear. I’m sure that not a single word or note written for the lyric-dense forest that is Into the Woods is expendable, but in this production, sadly, a lot of it gets swallowed up like Red Riding Hood’s granny. Familiarity with the characters helps to compensate.
Into the Woods, in addition to providing alternate endings to Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Rapunzel, features the tale of the Baker and his barren wife, doomed to be childless by a witch whose demands on them provide the action for the story. They are tasked with finding such items as a white cow and corn yellow hair (thank you, Rapunzel) before they are granted fertility.
Enter Jack of beanstalk fame (Matthew Skrovan) and his feisty, fabulously-in-your-face mother (Kate Murray), who lose their cow, Milky White, to the desperate baker and his wife.
A word about the cow, a papier-mache head on a starched frame of molded twine that was carried around by Elisheva Glaser for the scenes in which she was needed. It seemed a little cheesy to me (no pun intended), but did cleverly serve its purpose. Glaser kept her where she was supposed to be and didn’t overshadow her bovine charge.
Anna Eden’s costumes are good and, in some instances, spot on, although I found the super-sparkly gown of Cinderella’s wicked stepmother a bit distracting. Despite the dress, Amy Smith did a fine acting job as the wicked stepmom. However, her voice does not carry too well when she sang, nor did it work for me in her role as the unseen but terrifying Giant.
Marjorie Donovick and Jess Brookes were funny as her daughters, Florinda and Lucinda, but their Valley Girlish delivery (if that’s what it was) was somewhat unoriginal.
When the baker, Josh Sedelmeyer, was on the stage, you knew he was paying close, close attention to his fellow actors and their bits, playing off and with them rather than operating in a separate theatrical reverie. The baker and his wife (Rachel O’Malley) provided a natural comic thread to the narrative in their efforts to get that baby, if only for the sake of having one. Sedelmeyer and O’Malley had good dramatic and comedic chemistry, and both sang well.
Erin Wilson was terrific as the one-eyed witch who is plaguing them. She has a beautiful voice and just the right amount of stage presence. Emily Goodell was Cinderella; her prince, Perry Davis Harper, doubled as the fur-coat-wearing wolf. Harper had some funny moments with his lunch, the sassy Red Riding Hood (Keara Byron) and her Granny (Suzanne Santer Brigham). Santer Brigham, who also played Cinderella’s real mother, rocked her red union suit as Granny.
When Rapunzel’s prince, Andrew Simek, clowned and sang with Harper as Cinderella’s prince, the two of them provide some of the funniest and best moments of Into the Woods. Maureen Dancesia handled the ladder-haired Rapunzel with good comic timing, too.
Tim Mollen as the Mysterious Man could almost be reprising one of his roles from last season’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in which he had several different parts. He always has fun with whatever character he takes on, and we have fun with him. The Mysterious Man is a little more understated than previous roles I’ve seen him in, but memorable nonetheless.
Chris Nickerson’s part as the Steward is small, but integral. He, too, is good in just about everything he does, and pops up as either director or actor in frequent Binghamton area productions, recently directing Bat Boy at the stage at Little Italy for EPAC. If you happen to catch him, you might also get to hear him sing Billy Joel’s New York State of Mind on any given Friday night at the Binghamton bar, Matty B’s.
Young Jacob Donlin, last seen in the S.T.A.R. (Southern Tier Actors Read) dramatic reading of The Farnsworth Invention, is the young version of the narrator, later played by Santino DeAngelo. Keep an eye on the careers of both of these young men.
I’m always game for new interpretations of old stories, so Into the Woods could not have disappointed despite the unevenness of some of the performances.Inconsistency never makes, and can often break, a show, but here it did neither.
IF YOU GO: Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays through Oct. 12. Call 748-7383 or visit www.cidermillplayhouse.org.