Theater review: Journeying 'Into the Woods' with Grand cast

Published: Monday, Oct. 15 2012 11:00 a.m. MDT

“Into the Woods,” the Grand Theatre, through Oct. 27 at 7:30 p.m., with Saturday matinees at 2 p.m.; $24-$9, with senior and student discounts available, 801-957-3322 or the-grand.org

Before she begins her journey “Into the Woods,” Little Red Riding Hood announces, “The way is clear, the light is good. I have no fear, nor no one should.”

Yet as storybook readers are quick to point out, there are lessons to be learned in a dark and mysterious forest.

In the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine Tony-winning musical, there’s a wonderful “mashing,” as the composer calls it, of the iconic Grimm and Perrault characters. Their wishes come true in Act One, while dreams disintegrate into nightmares in the second act — and the audience learns with Little Red Riding Hood that “it’s nice to know a lot. And a little bit not.”

Many of the elements are in place for a thrilling evening of musical theater at the Grand Theatre staging of “Into the Woods.” Director Neil Vanderpool has assembled nice singers to enliven the superb score.

The costumes by Amanda Reiser are nicely storybook-derived yet rooted in Tyrolean reality to remind us these woods are not entirely a fantasy world. There’s even an onstage turntable that is at times used effectively as it rumbles the action forward on the flimsy set.

Sondheim music is notoriously hard to sing, and “Into the Woods” has more rapid-fire patter text than his other works. Yet the Grand singers largely impress and the lyrics are wonderfully clear, even while the cast battles the Grand’s daunting acoustics. Kevin Mathie conducts a bright-sounding seven-piece pit band. Even if you seen this show multiple times, can you remember the last time it was accompanied by a live band? And it's great to hear "Our Little World," a song written for the London production after the show's 1978 New York premiere, which deepens the understanding of Witch’s relationship with her ward, Rapunzel. (So, if you only have the Broadway recording, it's not on your CD.)

Leading the talented players, who sound especially strong in the ensemble songs, are Jonathan McBride as Baker, Stephanie Purcell as Baker’s Wife, Ashley Gardner Carlson as Cinderella, Angela Chatelain Avila as Little Red Riding Hood and Julie Silvestro Waite as Witch. But the truly invigorating surprise of the evening is the ever-brilliant Camille G. Van Wagoner as Jack’s Mother.

Supported by the fine singing of Jacob Tonks as Jack (and also aptly assisted by Jack’s beloved Milky White, of course), Van Wagoner skillfully balances all the poignancy mixed with comedy that is a requirement of "Into the Woods." Sondheim’s lip-biting, witty humor is nearly as evident in the princes’ duet, “Agony,” by Doug Irey and Jake Miskimins. But without Van Wagoner’s consistent droll comic abilities from the other players, this version sidesteps a contemporary musical feel for a something closer to German operetta.

Along with the insightful wisdom imparted, each viewing of a Sondheim work deepens one’s appreciation for his musicals. Before the last midnight, it's recommended that you make a path “Into the Woods.”

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