By KIM COOL
Aug. 11, 2018
Venice Theatre’s summer stock production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” should go into the record book as one of the finest productions ever by that theater. To be clear, I mean one of the best of all the theater’s productions of at least the past 22 years during which I have been reviewing area theater. And not just the summer stock shows, which are generally excellent productions.
Before the show, director Brad Wages told me that during auditions when he realized the depth of talent trying out for various roles, he decided to double-cast six of them: Jack (Devin Snowden and Ryan Hunek); Stepmother (Priya Pankhaniya and Sydney Robinson); Florinda (Bailey Scott and Leah Henry); Little Red (Sarah Conte and Bea Kelly); and Granny (Sophia Coscia and Megan Sampson). That resulted in bigger roles for more talented actors, most of whom have many years of experience at Venice, Booker or other area stages.
All that experience shows in this production, which Wages both directed and choreographed.
The actors he chose did not let him down, at least not on opening night when I was on the edge of my seat enjoying every little nuance of this wonderful fairy tale.
(As an aside, the previous night I reviewed the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s production of “Rocking Down Fairytale Lane,” written and directed by WBTT founder Nate Jacobs. That show included many of the same characters.) When the curtain rose on Brian Freeman’s stunning set, we were immediately transformed “Into the Woods,” a magical, mystical woods befitting Sondheim’s music.
The story progresses, with slight variations, through the original fairy tales of our youth in Act One. Even though works by the Brothers Grimm are not copyrighted, there are just enough changes in the stories to be safe in today’s legal system.
Introducing the story and carrying us along the sometimes rocky road are narrators Ralik Doujar and Magan Hartnett, who did a yeoman’s job with their very big roles.
We meet the baker (Beckett Phanmiller) and his wife (Hannah Beatt), who would give anything for a child; Cinderella (Belle Babcock), who dreams of going to the festival with Prince Charming (Charlie Kollar), while her wicked stepsisters laugh at her; Little Jack, whose mother sends him off to sell his beloved cow because they need the money to buy food; and Little Red, who is in the woods trying to find her way to her grandmother’s house.
Act One ends happily, and the usual long lines form at the bar in the theater lobby, which is wise. Patrons needto prepare for an equally lengthy and very different second act.
In Act Two, it seems that “happily ever after” is not really the eventual outcome for these characters. The community must come together to save them and their kingdom. Sacrifices must be made for the common good if there is to be a fairy-tale outcome.
Babcock was a delightfully different Cinderella, befitting this variation of the classic fairy tale.
At the opening night performance, Devin Snowden portrayed Jack, acquitting himself quite well even as Jillian Alexander nearly brought down the house as Jack’s cow, “Milky White.” Kudos to her portrayal and also to costume designer Jeannette Rybicki, who pulled out all the stops to create this most unique costume and all the other costumes called for in the script.
Alexander also portrayed Sleeping Beauty. Claudia Hassler portrayed Jack’s long-suffering mother.
Phanmiller played the baker with a certain amount of angst, while Beatt was a good match as his wife.
Pankhaniya was delightfully wicked as the opening-night stepmother, with Scott and Henry as her evil stepdaughters, Florinda and Lucinda, and Jeff Cochran as Cinderella’s father. Angela Bernardo was Cinderella’s mother and also the giant. Summer Smith appeared as Snow White.
Conte was Red on opening night with Cascia as Granny. Kollar portrayed the Big, Bad Wolf with gusto, and also played Prince Charming in a most delightful manner, arriving on stage each time with a bounding leap matched by Rapunzel’s Prince (Casey Berkery). Each time the princes leaped onto the stage, the audience seemed to enjoy it all the more.
Max Vitkus did a fine job as the steward of the castle.
Casey Deiter was the show’s sound designer, with lighting by John Andzulis. Lisa Million is the stage manager, which is always a major ordeal.
Kudos also to the worker bees who had a hand in the production of the wonderful set and all those incredible costumes, plus the assorted smoke screens and more that added the requisite magic to this production.
Madpak’s diverse musical background in theater and with choral groups enhanced this production. I hope to see more of him for future musicals.
Just two performances remain. Cancel whatever plans you have in order to get tickets. This production is right up there with “Ragtime” and “Rent,” which also were directed by Wages at Venice.