After years of turning out middle-of-the-road musical theater productions with rarely a hint of originality, it's nice to see the Stratford Festival trying something bold with its current take on "Into the Woods." Although the production's sometimes excessive and relentlessly dour, stunning designs and first-rate performances make it worth a visit for any fan of this complex Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine work.

After years of turning out middle-of-the-road musical theater productions with rarely a hint of originality, it’s nice to see the Stratford Festival trying something bold with its current take on “Into the Woods.” Although the production’s sometimes excessive and relentlessly dour, stunning designs and first-rate performances make it worth a visit for any fan of this complex Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine work.

Director Peter Hinton and designer Dany Lyne don’t see “Woods” as a show that goes from light to darkness and into light again, but rather as one that starts dark, gets darker and stays there. It’s a bold vision and one that has its rewards, but those used to seeing a happy first act full of fractured fairy tales will find it takes some getting used to.

Giving the keynote perf is Peter Donaldson as the narrator, and the fine, robust classical actor gives the role full value. He’s weighty, ominous and more than a little scary, serving notice that this isn’t your parents’ world of “happily ever after.”

That impression is fortified by the set, which features grim charcoal trees against an ever-changing primary-colored sky with a fondness for blood red. Most of the costumes lean heavily on black and white and seem to come from the 1930s. Combine that with ghoulish makeup and you may start to feel you’re being asked to come to the cabaret, old chum, instead of into the woods.

There are brilliant touches throughout. Rapunzel is 20 feet high in her own self-contained tower. Jack is not a wide-eyed innocent but a pasty-faced dude who looks like the lead singer of a boy band on crack, while Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters bring a whiff of “Ab Fab” to the proceedings.

But there are some serious miscalculations. Instead of going from conventional hag to sexy glamourpuss, the Witch begins the show in a body sculpture of vegetables and transforms into an S&M dominatrix. Neither one works for the character, and Susan Gilmour spends the whole evening fighting her costumes.

The other problem is that when the first act is so dark, there isn’t much further you can go in act two, when things are really supposed to get grim (as well as Grimm). Hinton and Lyne have everyone wandering around looking like war refugees, but it eventually gets to be too much and the evening starts to feel long.

Most of the cast is excellent, however, with Bruce Dow taking the crown for his complex and emotionally devastating performance as the Baker. Since neither Gilmour’s Witch nor the Baker’s Wife of Mary Ellen Mahoney scores as strongly, Dow becomes the focus, providing a new angle on the show.

Fine work also comes from Jennifer Waiser as a feisty Little Red Riding Hood, Kyle Blair as the troubled Jack and Barbara Fulton as his slatternly mother. Thom Allison and Laird Mackintosh are delicious as the Princes, their witty rendition of “Agony” a major highlight.

Production values are extremely high throughout; the orchestra under Berthold Carriere sounds rich.

It may not succeed at everything it attempts, but at least this production of “Into the Woods” dares to be different — something to be hailed at the Stratford Festival.

Into the Woods

Avon Theater, Stratford, Ontario; 1,093 seats; C$114 $92 top

Production

A Stratford Festival of Canada presentation of a musical in two acts with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine. Directed by Peter Hinton. Musical direction, Berthold Carriere.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Dany Lyne; lighting, Robert Thomson; sound, Jim Neil; fight director, John Stead; movement, Julia Sasso. Opened, reviewed June 3, 2005. Running time: 2 HOURS, 50 MIN.

Cast

Narrator, Mysterious Man - Peter Donaldson Cinderella - Danya Tektach Jack - Kyle Blair Baker - Bruce Dow Baker's Wife - Mary Ellen Mahoney Cinderella's Stepmother - Christina Gordon Florinda - Jodi-Lynn Mcfadden Lucinda - Marion Adler Jack's Mother - Barbara Fulton Little Red Riding Hood - Jennifer Waiser Witch - Susan Gilmour Cinderella's Father, Granny - Barrie Wood Cinderella's Mother, Giant's Shadow - Barbara Dunn-Prosser Wolf, Cinderella's Prince - Thom Allison Rapunzel - Amy Walsh Rapunzel's Prince - Laird Mackintosh Steward - Lawrence Haegert Voice of the Giant - Martha Henry Snow White - Stephanie Graham Sleeping Beauty - Heather E. Wilson

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