Opportunity is not a lengthy visitor and the opportunity to catch one of Stephen Sondheim’s most popular musicals is equally brief at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia this summer. With magic that defies description, Into the Woods tumbles fairytale classics onto their ear in this thrilling and adventurous family-friendly musical. Co-Directed by Toby Orenstein and Mark Minnick, with Musical Direction by Ross Scott Rawlings, this heartfelt Sondheim classic grants wishes and proves that right and wrong don’t matter in the woods.
Resident Set Designer David A. Hopkins takes to the task of transforming the intimate space of Toby’s into a mysterious and enchanting forest that suits the title of the show. The mossy drapery that hangs down over each of the four sections of the audience creates a theatrical ceiling; a canopy that really brings theatergoers into the story for an immersive experience. Two sets of painted wooden bookcases flank either side of the four entrances across the theatre and although their placement and overall existence feels slightly arbitrary, their reflection of stories that are woven into the woods is clear. Hopkins main set piece— the falling tree columns that descend from the ceiling— a double-edged sword. While creating the most striking effect during the larger group numbers where the ensemble weaves their way flawlessly among the trees, there are other moments throughout the performance where only some of these brown-sheet columns slide into place and unfortunately block the viewpoint of certain actions that occur on the stage.
Lighting Designer Lynn Joslin brings a fascinating approach to the birds in this production. Swirling gobo designs of birds alight down from the sky in yellow and white when they are delivering news or assisting Cinderella, but turn a fierce and bloody red when they are on the attack. This simple colored symbolism informs the audience of their intentions. Joslin uses color enhancements throughout the performance to augment various incidences. Every time a untimely tragedy occurs the backlighting behind the walls’ main decorations glows deep crimson, and when magic occurs, like with the sprouting beanstalk, there are bursts of green. Joslin’s timing in magical effects, however, needs a tweak of fine-tuning. The flash lighting for the witch’s transformation is delayed as are the spectacle flashing effects featured at the end of “Last Midnight.”
Sound Designer Mark Smedley deserves a nod for his clever and resourceful uses of sound throughout the production. Sickening squishes, screeching birds, and the sweet authentic cry of a fussy baby are just a few of the wondrous aural enchantments that Smedley infuses into the performance. These little hints of sound that are perfectly timed with actions that occur on stage or lighting cues and affixed points of scenery make the difference in the level of enchantment involved in the production, taking it from great to glorious.
Musical Director Ross Scott Rawlings and Pit Conductor Greg Knauf further enhance Mark Smedley’s sound design with Sondheim’s orchestrations. The timing and delivery of sound cues from the pit (which is mostly just the zippy slings of the magic beans on a xylophone-sounding instrument) is impeccable and matches the sharply articulated gestures of the actors to a tee. Rawlings, as the show’s Musical Director, navigates the cast through Sondheim’s intensive and tricky music, finding balanced harmonies and emotional intricacies throughout the complex score. The ensemble carries a durable and well-worn sound about them for group numbers such as the title number, and Rawlings ensures that the subtler blends and hallmarks that make a musical uniquely Sondheim are not only heard but felt.
Costume Designer Eleanor Dicks and Costume Coordinator Lawrence B. Munsey capture the essence of fairytale characters in their couture design work for this show. The most impressive and eye-catching costumes in the show are those that are worn by Cinderella’s Step-Family. The saying may go that ‘the clothes make the man’ but in this case they certainly make the woman, as all three women’s impressively amusing performances are magnified exponentially by the absurdly vivid and ridiculous dresses and hats they are wearing. In the same vein, Dicks and Munsey keep the peasants of the story looking subdued; Cinderella’s rags are filthy but simple, and the Baker and his Wife has equally plain garments that allow their gentle and earnest natures to resonate through without obstruction.
Never missing an opportunity to showcase his choreographic skills, Co-Director Mark Minnick sneaks in hints of dance routines and purposeful movement routines throughout the performance so that even a non-dance-focused Sondheim musical experiences the great physical joys of motion. “First Midnight” and the tail-end of the title number features circular mapping and traversing of the woods by the company. This wends an intricate pattern all across the stage which is fascinating to watch. Minnick’s overall staging is one that best serves the show, particularly with his placement of The Narrator.
Co-Director Toby Orenstein takes the show’s leading character of The Witch (Janine Sunday) in an unexpected and unconventional direction. While the makeup used to enhance the curse of the Witch’s appearance are traditional (and impressive to behold), it’s the personality approach that sets this witch apart from other performances. Sunday’s voice is lyrically suited for numbers like “Stay With Me” and “Children Will Listen.” The lack of ferocity and rage, or sassy humor and bite, are clear directorial choices that leave Sunday’s witch as a newly invented frustrated and whining character. This unique presentation is not without its charms as certain lines are delivered with a keen sense of deadpan humor, which brings an unexplored vein of the witch’s deep persona to the forefront of the audience’s attention. Sunday’s voice is strong and caries sustains with ease in all three of her solo numbers.
There is a clear reflective element of sassy attitude that streaks throughout the cast in this production. With Little Red Ridinghood (Sophie Schulman) as the snappy leader, visceral biting personality chips come flying into play. Schulman is an eager and excitable performer that explores the character of Little Red on a much more grown-up level. Her mature approach to spite and edginess creates moments of dark humor that juxtapose against her tender innocent nature as a young child lost in the woods. Though the lower notes in Little Red’s range aren’t her strongest suit, Schulman floods “I Know Things Now” with her chipper character voice, which makes it an inherently endearing number. “Hello, Little Girl” a duet shared with the frightening Big Bad Wolf (Lawrence B. Munsey) exemplifies both Schulman and Munsey’s ability to navigate the difficult rhythms of a Sondheim score.
As a subtle scene-stealing character, Cinderella’s Stepmother (Heather Marie Beck) wears the crown when it comes to haughty and flippant behavior. Flanked by her snotty and obnoxious brats Florinda (Katie Keyser) and Lucinda (MaryKate Brouillet), Beck’s Stepmother is a hilarious character delivered in a most deliciously understated fashion. With a simple yet severe flick of her wrist, her fan becomes a character all its own. Beck makes the character pop in an appealing fashion without detracting from everything that’s happening around her. Brouillet, Keyser and Beck are wondrous of voice and are resplendent additions to the company numbers as well as their carefully placed solo lines. The trio delivers a darkly entertaining scene when the prince starts fitting them with shoes. An additional nod to Properties Coordinator Amy Kaplan is deserved here for her heels and toes that really make the scene complete.
The scene-stealer of scene stealers isn’t even a human character, but rather, a goofy and perfectly executed cow named Milky White (Alex Beveridge.) Directors Minnick and Orenstein’s decision to have the cow played by a live performer is one that pays off with interest in this instance. Beveridge moves Milky White with keen sense of comic timing and has reactions to the characters that surround him that really bring well intended laughs forth from the audience. It’s a brand of enchanting all its own when Milky White becomes an honest focal point of scenes, particularly when trying to flee back to Jack after being sold.
A story is not told until there is a Narrator (Russell Sunday) to tell it. Possessing an impressively enigmatic quality in both his voice and his physical presence, Sunday eases into the role of The Narrator with aplomb. His smooth voice and rich timbre entices the audience to follow his every word, and although he is only scripted snippets at time, a cohesive and engaging story is formulated in his delivery. Doubling as The Mysterious Man, Sunday’s character commitment is outstanding. The hunched figure, the inward knocking and wobbly knees, the perpetually trembling hands; all of these nuances are stacked on top of a deliberate character voice making this character worthy of its namesake. Sunday’s voice is only heard singing in the duet “No More” but it is well worth the wait to hear his voice alight upon this number.
There’s a giant talent in the sky in this production, as young Jimmy Mavrikes takes on the role of Jack. With a youthful exuberance bursting through his eyes, Mavrikes leaps through his performance with zest and exhilaration. There is a convivial nature to Mavrikes’ portrayal of Jack; he makes the audience want to take his journey, and he invites theatergoers to feel with him, fear for him, and understand his story. In addition to mastering the storytelling element of his character, Mavrikes’ voice is stellar. His featured solo “Giants in the Sky” is a gorgeous burst of spirited sound that makes Mavrikes perfect for the role. His naïve interactions with His Mother (Jane C. Boyle) and the rest of the cast, round out an outstanding performance.
Beyond the power of speech is the level of hysterical command that Justin Calhoun brings to the role of Rapunzel’s Prince. A dashing Romeo with all the insincerity of someone who was raised to be charming, Calhoun is a roaring riot as he leaps onto the scene. “Agony” a duet shared with Cinderella’s Prince (Jonathan Helwig), is an uproarious moment that features Calhoun at his finest, intentionally attempting to upstage and outlast his brother-prince with hammy facial expressions and gestures that read true to form for this number. Outdone only by the reprisal of this number in Act II, Calhoun brings a robust voice ripe with oozing romantic intentions and a flamingly wild spirit to his portrayal. Pairing well with Rapunzel (Katherine Riddle), Calhoun and Riddle make a delightful couple on the stage. Riddle’s voice reaches the rafters of soprano in this show and she carries the crying and weeping of the character with graceful ease.
Wishing to go the festival is the bright-eyed and sunnily vague Cinderella (Julia Lancione.) The epitome of perfection in the role, Lancione has a voice that was designed for the princess character. With vocal versatility that imbues her emotional expressions into the lyrics of the songs, Lancione delivers an astonishing renditions of “No One Is Alone.” “On The Steps of the Palace” is a delightfully charming number that displays the simplistic humor of the Cinderella character while simultaneously showcasing Lancione’s ability to belt and sustain the final note at the end of the number. A true gift to the stage, Lancione is an exceptional addition to the quartet “Your Fault,” carrying her own emotional turmoil through this number and holding her own against the other three voices in the song. A shining star that illuminates the darkness of these woods, Lancione is Cinderella incarnate.
They wish to have a child, The Baker (Jeffrey Shankle) and his Wife (Priscilla Cuellar.) The chemistry between a pair of stage lovers has never been more keenly felt than with that of Shankle and Cuellar. It is an honest connection between the pair, even when they bicker, even when they fight. There is a palpable love and affection for one another in their voices and their eyes which reverberates through their overall portrayal. The attention to intricacies and detail that Shankle and Cuellar give to their roles is second to none. Even at the beginning of the musical when they moving baked goods about the Baker’s cottage, they take to delicately handling their breads and pastries as if they were babies; a strong symbolic reflection of their need for a child. Cuellar and Shankle discover each other’s characters with new eyes in “It Takes Two” and they let the joys of love in a marriage resonate clearly through this number.
Cuellar has a sensational voice that rings true through everything she sings, but particularly when she has little moments near the end of the production. “Moments in the Woods” is a fanciful showcase not only of Cuellar’s range and ability but of her vocal and emotional versatility and the ability to transition through multiple feelings and sensations all in one song. She delivers a grounded presence every time she takes to the stage and in her own unobtrusive way demands an equal footing in the relationship with The Baker. Her exasperation upon meeting Cinderella during “A Very Nice Prince” is the perfect foil to Lancione’s aloof and charming verses of this number.
Shankle astounds as the Baker. His performance is pure magic. The earnest approach that Shankle takes to the character in all its facets is rewarding. The honest and raw emotions that infuse their way into his line delivery and his songs are powerful and gripping. The doting concern that Shankle carries for The Bakers Wife is delivered with each deliberate dismissal of her in the woods. Balancing this carefully crafted character, Shankle finds the precise moments of humor and lets them fall naturally into the character’s existence. His singing voice is phenomenal and carries the rawest and most honest emotions of the show. “No More” is the epitome of a wounded soul crying out from a fragile and broken place deep within Shankle’s portrayal of The Baker. The emotional expression felt in this moment is harrowing. “No One is Alone” is the perfect complement to this number as it parallels Shankle at his most undone and vulnerable to the resurgence of strength that he finds to carry on. A remarkable talent with honest feelings to be shared, Shankle tells the story and tells it as it was meant to be told.
Remember, opportunity is not a lengthy visitor. Nor is this production at Toby’s Dinner Theatre. Tickets will move quickly, and you will want to have them so that you too can experience the magic that can only happen in the moments in the woods!
Running Time: Approximately 3 hours with one intermission