Play: Into the Woods
Group: Stray Dog Theatre
Venue: Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave.
Dates: October 1, 2, 3, 8, 9, 10
Tickets: $18-$20; contact 314-865-1995 or www.straydogtheatre.org
Story: In the fairy tale world of the Brothers Grimm, characters in the various fables live in the same village and routinely interact with each other. The Baker and his Wife, lamenting their inability to have a child, are told by the neighboring Witch that the wife will become pregnant if the couple can obtain four magic ingredients within three days’ time. The Witch isolates her own daughter, Rapunzel, in a tower to protect her from the wiles of the world. Elsewhere in the village, Jack’s mother has grown weary of their poverty and orders her son to sell his beloved cow. Little Red Riding Hood blithely goes on her way to visit her granny in the woods, disarmingly conversing with a wily Wolf along the way. And Cinderella dreams of attending the Prince’s ball but is tricked by her evil Stepmother.
All of these tales have well-known endings. In Act II, however, playwright James Lapine and lyricist/composer Stephen Sondheim investigate what happened to these familiar characters as they attempted to live happily ever after.
Highlights: This complex, intricately woven and long (2 hours 45 minutes) musical won Tony Awards in 1988 for Best Book and Best Score as well as a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical. It’s ambitious, inspired by psychologist Bruno Bettelheim’s book, The Uses of Enchantment, as it explores the allegorical meaning behind many of the familiar Brothers Grimm tales, and Sondheim’s difficult, meticulous score requires considerable skill by a company to be pulled off successfully.
Fortunately, Stray Dog artistic director Gary Bell and his ensemble are equal to the task. This production blends the fanciful set design of Tyler Duenow with the flashy costumes of the familiar characters courtesy of designer Sheila Lenkman. Duenow’s colorful, imaginative set offers a multi-leveled dreamscape that conjures both the title territory as well as locales where the spirit of Cinderella’s mother and the booming voice of the Giant’s Wife can be discerned.
Bell’s pacing is consistent throughout, fluidly matching the action with the challenging Sondheim score, and his players largely are up to the challenge. Most impressive are Christina Rios, who displays a beautiful voice on a number of tunes as Cinderella; Deborah Sharn, who shines with both her acting and vocal abilities as the crafty Witch; and Alex Miller, who brings amusing bravado and cocky pluck to the role of the carefree and confident Little Red Riding Hood.
Other Info: Kudos to Todd Schaefer for the makeup design, most notably the Witch’s garish hue, and to Michelle Sauer for her contributions for the specialty scenic design, particularly for the removable backdrops that reveal additional depth to Duenow’s set. Jay Hall and Bell provide the funky cow and other humorous props, Justin Been adds a sound design that includes the booming voice of the Giantess and Teresa Bentley embellishes with the amusing wigs.
Steve Callahan is delightful as the genial Narrator and the dapper Mysterious Man, Zack Huels nicely portrays Jack as a gangly lad in search of himself and his place in the world and Donna Weinsting brings a fine comic touch and clear shining voice to the role of Jack’s mother.
JT Ricroft and Laura Kyro pleasantly complement each other as the befuddled Baker and his industrious wife, with Ricroft also providing the show’s precise musical direction. Kay Love demonstrates her smooth vocal talents as Cinderella’s mother as well as contributing to the background terror of the avenging Giantess, while Vincent Wieck is amusing as the thick-witted Steward.
Jeffrey Wright and Justin Ivan Brown make a fine pair of not-so-perfect princes, comically comparing their patrician situations as they pursue Rapunzel and Cinderella, respectively. Leslie Sikes plays the frustrated Rapunzel as well as contributing vocal direction, and Cinderella’s dunderhead family is appropriately portrayed by Ken Haller as her father, Kim Furlow as her banal stepmother and Natasha Toro and Laura Coppinger as her vacuous stepsisters.
With considerably improved acoustics in the Tower Grove Abbey, Stray Dog’s Into the Woods offers a most successful interpretation of one of Sondheim’s most difficult, but highly appealing, works.
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.