Theatre Review: ‘Into The Woods’ at Theatre In The Mist

I try, sometimes in vain, to approach every production I review with as much objectivity as possible. It’s not easy; I’m often reviewing a show I’ve seen many times before, that I’m intimately familiar with, or in the case of local productions, I may even know (or have performed with) one-or-two members of the cast.  Still, I feel as though it’s my journalistic duty—to the extent that I can—to always enter the theatre with a clean slate, carrying as little baggage as possible. This burden of impartiality is especially heavy when reviewing a show like “Into the Woods” because a) it’s one that near-everyone has seen, as it’s a favorite among high school drama clubs and community theatre troupes everywhere, b) it’s written by Stephen Sondheim who, for my money, is the single greatest musical theatre composer and lyricist of all time, and c) it just so happens to be one of my favorite shows. Understandably I jumped at the opportunity to trek up to Lewiston to catch Theatre in the Mist’s production of this masterpiece, and boy was it worth the gas money. Their production was charming and truly unique, bursting with talent from cast members of all ages.

. . .charming and truly unique . . .

 “Into the Woods”, the Sondheim classic with book by James Lapine, is an interwoven and somewhat revisionist retelling of the most well-known and iconic English/Perrault/Brothers Grimm fairy tales including “Little Red Riding Hood”, “Jack and the Beanstalk”, “Rapunzel”, and “Cinderella.” As the result of the curse of a once-beautiful witch (Sara Kovacsi), a baker (Corey Bieber) and his wife (Casey Moyer) are childless. Three days before the rise of a blue moon, they venture into the forest to find the ingredients that will reverse the spell and restore the witch’s beauty: a milk-white cow, hair as yellow as corn, a blood-red cape, and a slipper of gold. During their journey they meet Cinderella (Erin Coyle), Little Red Riding Hood (McKenzie Gilmore), Rapunzel (Julie Pitarresi) and Jack (Anthony Chavers), each one on their own quest to fulfill a wish. The story—equal parts whimsical, adventurous, and tragic—rests heavily on themes of love, loss, parenting, and the consequences of one’s actions.

One of the most impressive components of TITM’s production is the broad and eclectic cohort of actors that director Tim Stuff assembled. In the truest embodiment of “community theatre”, TITM’s “Into the Woods” features actors in high school, in their 50’s-60’s, and everything in between, all of whom bring immense talent and magnetism to the stage. What’s more wild is that the younger actors, the high school juniors and seniors who weren’t even born yet when I was performing in my 10th grade production of “Into the Woods”, absolutely steal the show! 

Anthony Chavers (17 years old)’ “Giants in the Sky” is heartfelt and innocent, demonstrating an enormous vocal range and tender acting sensibility. McKenzie Gilmore (a senior at Niagara Falls High School) has an equally impressive singing voice, with sass to boot. Julia Pitarresi (15 years old) embodies the often-overlooked role of Rapunzel with a beautiful operatic soprano voice, particularly on the refrain that reappears throughout the show. 

At the center of the story are the baker and his wife, brought to life through charismatic performances by Bieber and Moyer. Local productions featuring onstage marriages too-often feature forced, chemistry-less performances, but that isn’t the case with these actors, who bring tenderness and believability to their onstage relationship. Casey Moyer in particular shines as the Baker’s Wife (a title I loathe; why can’t she have her own name?!), delivering beautiful renditions of “Moments in the Woods” and others. 

“Into the Woods” features some of the best large ensemble numbers of any modern musical, and in true Sondheim fashion, they’re immensely difficult. The TITM cast was up to the task, delivering crisp and articulate renditions of “Your Fault”, “No One is Alone”, and “Children Will Listen.” 

Like most productions, TITM’s “Into the Woods” isn’t without its minor blemishes. There were fairly consistent mic issues on opening night (an easy thing to address before next weekend’s performances), and stretches of Act II drag a bit, a fault that’s more attributable to playwright James Lapine’s lopsided writing than to this particular production; it’s not a hot take to suggest that Act I of “Into the Woods” is much better than Act II, so much so that high schools and theatre companies often opt to only perform the first act and nix the second entirely. 

At the risk of gushing over TITM’s “Into the Woods” ad-nauseum, productions like this are genuinely why I love covering local theatre. After sitting through countless stuffy, self-important productions of lifeless plays featuring actors taking themselves way too seriously, it’s such a breath of fresh air to come to the theatre and see seriously talented performers of all ages—not professionals, but folks who are likely your co-workers, classmates, neighbors and friends—come together to put on a earnest and entertaining show, one that’s simple and unassuming but also exciting and emotional and tremendously fun. 

TITM’s production of “Into the Woods” is playing at Lewiston’s Stella Niagara Education Park on October 4th, 5th and 6th. For tickets and more information, click here.

Theatre Review: “Into The Woods’ at the Lockport Palace Theatre

“Into the Woods” was thrust back into the cultural spotlight with the 2014 feature film starring a colorful cast of Hollywood and Broadway performers. It weaves numerous fairy tales into one flowing narrative, an emotional roller coaster. Lockport Palace Theatre, taking a step forward in their own story with a beautiful internal restoration and remodeling, presents the Sondheim classic with a well-staged and comprehensive production.

. . .[an] efficient and successful production.

“Into the Woods” only works when there are no weak links, when the entire ensemble is strong. The Palace has assembled an extremely capable cast, made up almost entirely of Palace regulars. Serving as the story’s Narrator, Jon May takes the audience along for a ride into the fairy tale world, aided by an unbelievable set design. May understands the nuances of the comedy and has the audience in the palm of his hand from the first chord. The story centers around the Baker (Bobby Cooke), the Baker’s Wife (Kelly Ersing), Jack (Zach Thomas), Little Red (Rheanna Gallego), and Cinderella (Emily Prucha). All these primary characters must travel into the woods in search of something. In the Baker and his wife’s case, to reverse a spell placed on their family by the next-door Witch (Taylor Carlson) that has kept them childless. The story evolves from here, detailing triumphs and tribulations in the journey of these main characters.

As the Baker and Baker’s Wife, Cook and Ersing are a perfect pair. Cooke has an indescribable charm in this role and brings an honest and organic portrayal to the character; we believe he will do anything to get a child, and yet he puts the feelings of others before himself, even when it means sacrificing a necessary item to lift their curse. The role sits right in his vocal range and makes for wonderful renditions of the Sondheim score. He is particularly good in his Act Two “No More.” Ersing is his match in every way. She is a stellar singer and can handle the serious moments too; her “Moments in the Woods” is a master class. Thomas handles Jack’s naivety well, without creating a caricature, and is a capable singer to boot. Gallego is perfect for the role of Little Red, she manages to play both the “sour” and “sweet” of the storybook child who loves to snack. Gallego brings depth to the character from the get-go, which is uncommon in most portrayals. Finally, Prucha’s Cinderella channels more Anna Kendrick (film) than Kim Crosby (Original Broadway); she’s a modern woman for sure. In this performance, I felt Prucha took a few scenes to warm up to her usual sharpness, but her Act Two was extremely strong. She’s off to get her wish and ends up marrying the less than charming Prince (Ricky Needham). He and his brother (Jackson DiGiacomo) are the stereotypical spoiled princes, but Needham especially brings humanity to the Prince. He is to be commended, as this is no easy task; the audience is supposed to dislike the Prince in Act Two, but Needham at least creates understanding.

Though all these performances are strong, the real standout of the evening is Taylor Carlson. She’s had terrific performances at the Palace before, but this one transcends even her normal successes. Everything is well rehearsed, tight, and executed almost flawlessly. She is an unbelievable vocal powerhouse, but she possesses a subtlety in this role I’ve not seen in her work before. This is clearly a dream role for her, and she plays it with a dream-like quality. It’s worth the price of admission itself.

“Into the Woods” is a wonderful piece of theater that is very difficult to execute with absolute perfection. My only complaint with the Palace production is one I can potentially attribute to only being two performances in. I felt like the pit was below performance quality; I heard frequent mistakes and jumbled tempos, which affected the actors onstage in turn. This was a small blip in an otherwise efficient and successful production.

Running Time: 2 Hours 30 Minutes with one-15 minute intermission.

“Into The Woods” runs untilNovember 11, 2018 and is presented at The Lockport Palace Theatre. For more information, click here.