Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Into the Woods

Into The Woods was Stephen Sondheim’s attempt to prove that not everything he wrote had to be heavy, loaded with gloom and doom and psychological undertones, and that he could also write light hearted material. He succeeded--half way.

A production, with book by James Lapine, music and lyrics by Sondheim, opened this weekend at Wyatt Pavilion, produced by Studio 301.

Act One of Into the Woods is the “happily ever after” portion, where Sondheim and Lapine blend several familiar fairy tales – Cinderella, Jack in the Beanstalk, Little Red Ridinghood, Rapunzel, and The Baker and His Wife central among them. Each is dealing with a problem--Cinderella wants to go to the King’s festival, Jack and his mother need money, the Baker and his wife wish for a child, and Little Red Ridinghood wants to go to Grandma’s house. Throw in a witch and a mysterious stranger and a bit of magic and by the end of Act 1, everyone is living happily ever after. Or so we think.

But does anyone ever live happily ever after? Sondheim reverts to type in Act 2, with murder, destruction, agony, and enough melancholy to satisfy the most ardent of Sondheim fans.

There are strong performances in this production from actors who appear to be trained singers. Then there are the trained actors who also happen to sing and here the results are sometimes less than perfect, and in one or two cases downright painful to the ear, as notes are sung out of the singer’s register and at least one performer seemed to have trouble staying on key. Sondheim’s music is very tricky and may have been a bit ambitious some of the performers. It may also explain why there didn’t seem to be a lot of sparkle to the production.

Studio 301 is a student drama group, unaffiliated with the university’s Theater and Dance Department. In answer to the question “Why doesn’t Studio 301 do musicals?” producers Katie Baad, Molly LeGoy, and Syche Hamilton, with the assistance of a generous donor, purchased the rights to the Sondheim musical.

A company statement reads, “The production team has continued to expand, bringing on students of different backgrounds and strengths as we have learned what is necessary.
While we base our system on that which we know best - the UC Davis Theater and Dance Department - it still has taken trial and error for us to become the team we are today...and we expect to further shape ourselves as we move through the stages of production.”

With that explanation, Into the Woods has its strengths and it has its weaknesses, but it makes one want to follow the progress of Studio 301 as they continue to shape themselves.

Performances worthy of note are John Mothershead as the Baker and Jennifer Nelson as his wife. David Sawyer was a good Jack, with fun comic relief by Drew Phillips as his cow, Milky White. (Phillips also doubles as Red’s granny.)

Katie Baad was outstanding as Little Red Ridinghood, with a strong voice and commanding presence and Anna Rozzi was a scary witch.

Carter Mills was a lovely Rapunzel, while the two princes, Mario Castro and Jeffrey Frieders (who also plays the wolf in act 1) were wonderfully droll.

Brian Turner held things together nicely as the narrator. He also played the “mysterious man.”

Others in the cast include Molly LeGoy as Cinderella, Chelsea Kashin as Jack’s Mother, Casey Ledwith as Cinderella’s Stepmother, Natasha Tavakoli and Rosa Threlfall as the ugly stepsisters, Joe Ferreira as Cinderella’s father, Alissa Steiner is the Giant.

Director Syche Hamilton has handled the difficult structure of the Wyatt Pavilion stage well, with excellent use of the theater’s many levels, including placing the orchestra behind a curtain, their image projected on the back of the theater, to allow the performers to follow musical director Philip E. Daley.

Scenic Designer Chris Allison created a lovely fairyland, sparse enough to prevent the scenery from obscuring the view of the patrons in that always-difficult theater, but rich enough to set the scene. I particularly liked the way they handled Red Ridinghood’s grandmother’s house and her demise.

Allison’s design was nicely complemented by the lighting design of David Goldin.

Costumes by Molly Legoy and Lynly Saunders were quite good. My particular favorite was the costume for the wolf, vaguely in the vein of Julie Taymor’s Lion King (the look was less effective for Milky White)

Into the Woods is an ambitious project for this student company but the end results are very promising. It is definitely an enjoyable evening, though the production is not without its flaws.

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