For theater fans, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve seen a version of “Into the Woods” over the years. At the very least you probably trooped out to see the big Disney movie last Christmas.
The fun thing about the StageWorks Fresno version, which opened last weekend to sold-out houses in the intimate Dan Pessano Theatre in the Shaghoian Hall complex, is that it’s like bumping into an old friend who’s looking really good these days. You know the questions that are asked (or sometimes left unsaid) in such interactions: Are you working out? Eating better? Dumped your egregious spouse? Perhaps had some work done? Whatever the reason, the friend in question seems fresh and invigorated.
Director Joel Abels achieves this in many different ways in this deftly cast and nicely realized production, although it does have some flaws. On the plus side, there are small, edgy details that can bring a smile: Little Red Riding Hood carrying a Mickey Mouse (or is it Minnie?) plastic lunch box instead of a picnic basket, say, or the matching moles on the cheeks of the two Princes. And there are larger creative decisions, including a defiantly minimalist streak from scenic designer Mark Riedel, with just one big, sheer tree representing the woods towering over a bare-to-the-back-walls stage and catwalk. The magic of the show comes not from special effects but the strength of the ensemble performances.
Because you’re so near to the stage in the Pessano Theatre — if you have an aisle seat, you’re often close enough to touch one of the characters — the focus on acting and singing makes a lot of sense. With the striking costumes, a smart blend of traditional and contemporary (two-thirds of them built and designed by Lisa Schumacher, the others rented from the Ashland Shakespeare Festival) and Abels’ sturdy direction, you feel immersed in the action.
This “Into the Woods” boasts some of the best and best-known veteran theater performers in the area, so it’s no surprise the performances are so strong. Amalie Larsen is a stirring Witch, and she gives the show a big, throbbing heart. As Sondheim’s music and lyrics and James Lapine’s book whip up the fractured-fairy tales premise of the storyline, the Witch — who commands a Baker (Tyler Branco) and his Wife (Hayley Galbraith) to set off on a high-stakes treasure hunt in the woods — acts as the emotional core of the show. “Into the Woods” is a show about complexities and nuance, and Larsen has a way of pairing ambivalence with vigor. The Witch is not all bad, but certainly not all good, and it’s in that wavering middle that Larsen makes her mark.
Branco and Galbraith are likewise standouts, finding new and distinct angles to these much-loved characters. (Branco’s second-act turn in the haunting song “No More” is beautifully wrought.) I knew I was going to love Galbraith’s portrayal the moment early on the way she sassed, “He’s undoing a spell” when explaining her husband’s absence in the woods. Her Baker’s Wife is crisp, fun and just a little crazy, and her interactions with Cinderella’s Prince (an amusing Terry Lewis) are among this production’s high points.
Lewis and Rapunzel’s Prince, Jordan Litz, likewise have some crackling good moments as they play up a younger-brother-older-brother angle in “Agony.”
Sammy Linkowski brings a fine singing voice and strong acting to the role of Jack, with his “Giants in the Sky” a vocal highlight. Chris Carsten is a polished and amusing Narrator and Mysterious Man, and Gianna Console offers sweet singing and some wry comedy as Rapunzel. And Brooke Aiello shines as Milky White, Jack’s cow, in a clever bit of anthropomorphic fun.
Several of the storylines don’t rise to the same triumphant level as the Baker and Baker’s Wife. Amber Lewis has a pretty voice, but as Cinderella she doesn’t bring the depth that Sondheim’s lyrics call for (disillusionment, resolve, a slow-burning awakening) in the second act. Likewise, Linkowski’s Jack and Emily Miller’s Little Red seem defiantly young, with the direction downplaying the sexual-awakening theme of the lyrics, and I think we lose some of the intensity in those storylines.
While the live orchestra is terrific (and I heartily salute any local production that can boast live music), there were some moments in the performance I saw Friday of opening weekend when the singers got out of sync with conductor Matthew David Wheeler. And while sound designer Regina Harris does an admirable job in keeping the 14-piece orchestra from overwhelming the singers, there are a few moments when that does happen (such as when the Witch is explaining a rather technical point about why one of the ingredients she has demanded for her spell isn’t going to work).
As for the production’s minimalism, it certainly works, though I would have preferred to see at least a few more gestures toward realism (depicting Cinderella’s birds, perhaps, or showing a key transformation in the second act onstage instead of off.) At times the minimalism becomes almost a shorthand, which is fine if you know the show, but if you’re a newcomer to the material I’m not sure you’d realize that you’re witnessing the death of one of the major characters in the late second act, for example.
My biggest gripe is with Jennifer Sullivan’s lighting design, which seems forced and stuffy. In some songs, such as when the characters are singing about the Witch’s greens from her garden, abrupt shifts in color lack nuance and draw attention to the lighting rather than complement the action onstage. At one point in the second act, we lose the Witch entirely in darkness in an important solo moment.
But these are smallish quibbles, and they mostly arise from the high standards to which I hold StageWorks Fresno, one of the area’s top theater companies. In intensity and emotion, the show has a nice bounce and bustle to it, with Josh Montgomery’s choreography giving the show a smooth, graceful sense of movement. There are some nice visual surprises (which I don’t want to give away here), and some audio ones as well, such as Kia Vassiliades’ booming Mrs. Giant voice, an example of wonderful sound design.
Best of all, this “Into the Woods” gives us a chance to bask in characters that are complicated, flawed and memorable. When the Witch sings the haunting “Children Will Listen,” with its focus on the fact that what you say — and especially what you do — can change lives, it touches on universal truths. We all take many journeys into the Woods, and it’s a delight to make this production one of them.
Pictured at top: Brooke Aiello as Milky White and Sammy Linkowski as Jack. Above: Tyler Branco as the Baker and Hayley Galbraith as the Baker’s Wife.
StageWorks cabaret: One of the best-kept theater secrets in Fresno is the StageWorks Fresno post-show cabaret featuring performers from the current show and other special guests. It will be performed 11 p.m. Friday, June 10, at the Dan Pessano Theatre. Separate admission is $10. It’s always a great time.
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