Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.
The production is the final show of the 20th anniversary season. It’s also the company’s last hurrah in its current theatre space before moving to a brand-new, larger, state-of-the-art theatre. And the cast is a Who’s Who of Boston theatre. So to say expectations were high for the New Repertory Theatre’s production of Into The Woods might be something of an understatement. Happily, director Rick Lombardo has crafted a crowd-pleaser that’s both delightful and provocative.
Originally intended to open the company’s new theatre, Into The Woodsis a sprawling show – with seventeen cast members and an eight-piece band. Squeezing it all into the company’s tiny space is a feat all in itself. Lombardo and choreographer Kelli Edwards have compensated by utilizing every inch of space in the theatre, bringing characters into the aisles and even above the stage. The result is a more intimate Woods, where the characters’ realism trumps their fantastical elements, making the story of communal responsibility and parental obligations resonate even stronger.
This resonance is helped along by the stellar cast. Leigh Barrett is at the top of her game as the Baker’s Wife, showing us a woman beaten down by life transform into a pillar of support for her family. She acts and sings the part as though it were written just for her, drawing laughter without ever sacrificing the emotional weight of her role. Her Baker, Evan Harrington, is slightly less satisfying, tending to get lost in the crowd of more colorful characters around him. He underplays the first act, where his story is already at a loss (being the only piece not drawn from a traditional tale), although as his character takes on leadership in the second act, Harrington’s performance grows stronger. Nancy Carroll’s witch suffers a similar problem, never really blossoming into a full character until after her big transformation at the end of the act. However, once she does, she becomes unstoppable, and her “Lament” and “Last Midnight” are highlights of the show.
The more familiar characters of Cinderella, Jack, and Little Red Ridinghood are all in good hands. Aimee Doherty plays Cinderella as the only sane person in a household of crazy people, drawn into her fantasy almost by accident. She masterfully wraps her tongue around some of Sondheim’s most difficult patter songs, and she has a real flair for physical comedy. Veronica J. Kuehn’s Little Red Ridinghood succeeds on a different kind of physical comedy, totally (and hilariously) embodying the awkwardness of a precocious girl on the cusp of young womanhood. Miguel Cervantes, as Jack, takes a different approach, playing the part of a young man who hasn’t yet accepted the mantle of adulthood, avoiding the potential caricature of an adult playing a child. His “Giants in the Sky” is the musical highlight of the first act, filling the stage alone as well as the entire ensemble does.
The supporting cast also has its standouts, namely Kerry A. Dowling as Jack’s Mother and Todd Alan Johnson as the Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince. Dowling takes a part often played as a one-joke shrew and imbues it with humanity. Johnson is the first Wolf I’ve ever seen who is actually scary. And his prince, taking a cue from William Shatner’s playbook, oozes insincerity of the funniest variety.
The musical direction is credited to Todd C. Gordon, but the performance was conducted by Steven Bergman. The band did not feel totally confident, although they excelled at finding the singers when off track. There was an indication at the post-show talk-back that Bergman only recently assumed conducting duties from Gordon, so the band will likely improve once they acclimate themselves to the change.
Peter Colao’s scenic design – much like that of the recent Broadway revival – cleverly makes use of three giant pop-up books to provide numerous locales. While there are some inconsistencies between the set and the text, resulting in moments like the Baker claiming to have no bread while standing in front of a rack painted full of loaves, the sheer mechanics of fitting this gigantic show into the tiny space are admirable. Nancy Leary’s costume designs are beautiful, with clever details to remind us which characters are linked to each other. Rick Lombardo pulls double-duty as sound designer, making use of the theatre’s brand-new computerized system to surround the audience with everything from birds a’twitter to the very realistic results of a giant’s misstep. The remaining special effects are somewhat hit and miss. The witch’s first-act transformation is unfortunately lame, but her disappearance in the second act is special enough to make up for that. The only time the show’s design really falls short is at the top of the second act. Jack’s newfound wealth is represented by a satellite dish on his house, and several cast members carry modern luggage. If the intent is to tie the more realistic second act to our present times, it is not carried far enough; instead, the anachronisms are jarring.
Still, these are but minor quibbles with a truly superior production. For those wondering, the text reflects most – but not all – of the revisions for the recent Broadway revival. The three little pigs and their wolf are not included, but the new ending to “On The Steps of the Palace” and the new lyrics to “Last Midnight” are, as is the duet for the Witch and Rapunzel first introduced in the original London production. But whether this is your first encounter with New Rep and Into the Woods or you’ve seen both many times over the last twenty years, there is a good chance that you’ll leave the theatre feeling happily ever after.
Into The Woods is presented by the New Repertory Theatre now through May 29 at 54 Lincoln Street in Newton Highlands. Performances are Wednesdays at 7:00 pm (and 2:00 pm on selected Wednesdays), Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 4:30 pm and 8:30 pm, and Sundays at 3:00 pm followed by a talk-back (and 7:30 pm on selected Sundays). Tickets ranger from $35 to $53 and are available online at www.newrep.org or by calling 617-332-1646. Senior, student, and group discounts are available, as well as student rush.
New Rep’s 2005-2006 Inaugural Season at the Arsenal Center for the Arts includes Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, True West by Sam Shepard, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Frozen by Bryony Lavery, Bill W. and Dr. Bob by Samuel Shem and Janet Surrey, and Ragtime by Terrence McNally, Stephen Flaherty, and Lynn Ahrens.
Photo: Richard Feldman