Monday, November 10, 2008

Into the Woods

Excellent! Blue Hill Troupe’s production of Into the Woods is top notch from start to finish. I loved it every bit as much as the 2002 Broadway revival, which I saw twice. In fact, with this cast’s clear articulation of the songs and earthy approach to the characters, I experienced the show in a far deeper way than I had before.

Under the skilled direction of Andy Sandberg, the 20-member cast is equally strong in presenting the humor of the work and the dark side that surfaces in the second act. I found myself continually being surprised by the songs and wondered briefly if they were using an alternate text. Then I realized it’s just that I had never understood all of the words, despite having listened to the original cast recording I’m sure close to 100 times. These performers bring to life all of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics and James Lapine’s book. The orchestra, under the direction of Matthew Rupcich, does full justice to Sondheim’s engaging music.

Into the Woods, which opened on Broadway in 1987, won several Tony Awards including those for Best Score, Best Book and Best Actress in a Musical (Joanna Gleason as the Baker’s Wife). It interlaces the classic tales of Cinderella, Little Red Ridinghood, Rapunzel, the Wolf and the Witch, with a Baker and his Wife added. When the characters face loss and danger, they find they must band together as they discover their personal strengths in battling the darkness that lurks in the woods. “Anything can happen in the woods,” as one song says, and much does, including adultery and murder. They learn that if “no one acts alone,” they can survive: “Into the woods, you have to grope,/But that’s the way you learn to cope./ Into the woods to find there’s hope/Of getting through the journey.”

Among my favorite comic moments of Blue Hill’s production were Geoff Gaebe and John C. Taylor as the Princes. They really bring out the humor in the song “Agony” as they sing of their unobtainable love -- for Cinderella and Rapunzel, respectively. When Gaebe complains about pursuing a woman who always runs from him, Taylor tops him with the challenge of desiring a woman imprisoned in a tower. “Agony, far more painful than yours,/when you know she would go with you,/if there only were doors.”

I also loved Jennifer Dorre, the Baker’s Wife, as she sings in “Moments in the Woods” of her befuddlement after her fling with Cinderella’s Prince in the woods. “Was that me? Was that him? Did a prince really kiss me? And kiss me? And kiss me? And did I kiss him back?” Gaebe, Taylor and Dorre have the timing and delivery of the best of Broadway’s musical comedy stars.

In the second act, when the shadow side of human nature emerges, the actors made me feel the darkness in a way I hadn’t before. This could be because they aren’t well-known performers like Vanessa Williams, who played the Witch in the revival I saw. They seemed more believable to me and I felt I was with them in the woods.

Just as the timing was right in the funny scenes, it also was in the second act when fallen human nature temporarily takes over. In “Your Fault,” Jack (Ken Kiernan), the Baker (Kevin Murray), Little Red Ridinghood (Alison Plotkin), the Witch (Tracy Bidleman) and Cinderella (Amanda Smith) point fingers of blame at each other over who is responsible for the angry Giant running wild in their community. This is a difficult number in which much of the plot is recounted in a fast-paced manner as the characters all try to shift the focus to someone else. They handle it perfectly.

The production team is every bit as professional as the actors. Special applause goes to Denise Paglina and Suzanne R. Taylor for their evocative costumes, Douglas Larson and Richard Chung for designing and constructing simple sets that easily move in and out and to Sam Militello for the fabulous sound and special effects. It really sounds as if beanstalks are falling and a Giant is stomping around up there!

The Blue Hill Troupe, Ltd. brings high-quality theatre performances to New York City audiences while raising money for local charities. The Troupe has raised nearly $3 million since its founding in 1924. It has twice performed at Carnegie Hall with the New York Pops, and is featured annually in the Metropolitan Museum of Art concert series. On television, the Troupe has been profiled on “CBS Sunday Morning” and the "MetroArts/Thirteen" performance series.

Proceeds from Blue Hill Troupe's productions in 2008-2009 will benefit Inwood House's new Financial Literacy & Empowerment Initiative, equipping young mothers to become economically self-sufficient and create cycles of success for themselves and their families. Inwood House is an internationally recognized leader and innovator in youth development, teen pregnancy prevention and family support, serving nearly 5,000 young people in New York City and New Jersey.

As of Friday’s opening night when I was there, the show’s run was 80 percent sold out, so I advise you to call immediately to get tickets so you don’t miss this dynamic production of Sondheim’s classic. Only five more performances remain -- Nov. 12, 13, 14, 15 at 7:30 p.m. and Nov. 15 at 2 p.m. -- at Dicapo Opera Theatre, 184 E. 76th St., between Third and Lexington Avenues. Preferred seating tickets are $45 and standard seating tickets are $35. Call (866) 811-4111.

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