with foibles: C-R Productions Into the Woods.
Forest for the Trees
and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine, directed
by Brad Aspel, musical direction by Kate Kaufman
Productions, Cohoes Music Hall, through Sept. 28
the Woods is a phenomenal musical. Using archetypes from
classic fairy tales, the musical pleases on several levels.
The songs challenge the ear, the themes task the intellect,
the lessons tug at the heart, the characters tickle the sense
of humor. Into the Woods is so soundly written and
so surely created that it always pleases; like Shakespeare’s
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this musical is indestructible,
and even a poor production is an audience pleaser. Into
the Woods is a wise choice as a follow-up show to C-R
productions’ auspicious inaugural Phantom last spring.
Unfortunately, C-R Productions’ Into the Woods isn’t
as wisely or artistically done as Phantom. While the
current musical will please because of the greatness of Sondheim’s
and Lapine’s book, music and lyrics, C-R Productions’ rendering
is marred by some flat staging, muddled musical direction
and, in one crucial role, bad casting. It’s a shame, because
there are several good performances here, the show looks good
(the costuming by Karin Mason and the set by Michael Blau),
and the Cohoes Music Hall again shines.
The musical is told by a Narrator (Jay Cotten) who “once upon
a time” takes us through the stories of Cinderella (Jennifer
Freeman), Jack (Brian F. Waite) and the beanstalk, Little
Red Riding Hood (Meredith Bull), Rapunzel (Jessie Alois),
and, in the main story, a Baker (Nick Locilento) and his wife
(Beth Thompson), who are cursed to childlessness by a Witch
(Monica M. Wemitt). The stories entwine in the woods, songs
are sung, Charming Princes (Ken Shepski and Andrew Sullivan)
pursue various female characters, a Giant kills, and lessons
about children, parents, tolerance, and forgiveness are learned.
The cast stalks the stage well, and Cinderella, the Baker’s
Wife, and Jack’s mother are very focused and distinct. All
three create interesting characters who seem to breathe, as
opposed to posing with style. Freeman’s Cinderella in particular
has a physical life that is focused and believable, especially
her awkward grace in her gold ball slippers.
The set—green painted trees in silhouette that can be rolled
horizontally across the stage, and a green, raked thrust stage
that surrounds the two piano players in the pit—is excellent.
The movable trees create silhouettes of eerie faces like Munch’s
The Scream, giving a different look to each scene,
and the scenes are many and quickly paced. The thrust allows
the performers to move as if on a path through the woods and
to get very close to the audience, another wise directorial
What isn’t so wise is some of the casting, most notably in
the pivotal role of the Witch, a role originated by Bernadette
Peters and most recently played by Vanessa Williams on Broadway.
The role calls for an actress who can sing, or a singer who
can act, or a woman who can do some of both and fulfill the
stated transformation from ugly witch to “Youth and Beauty.”
When it’s stated three separate times that a character has
“Youth and Beauty,” having either quality would have barely
sufficed. Casting someone with neither borders on the criminally
And while the silhouettes for trees and Milky White (Jack’s
pet cow) make for some interesting stage pictures that move
briskly, the big moments of plot, theme and character never
pop. It’s as if the flatness of the set inhabits the cast
and the two piano players, who trail the singers most of the
night. This production seems to coast when it needs occasionally
to soar. For example, the buildup to the scene where the Wolf
(Ken Shepski) eats Little Red, who is then saved when the
Baker cuts the Wolf open, is engaging. But the actual staging
of the eating and the opening are brain-numbingly banal. Too
many payoff moments are flat, uninspired, or just spoken,
not performed—let alone acted. There’s a lot of promising
here, but no delivering. The lack of panache is glaring in
this particular musical, and especially so after the plentiful
flash and magic of C-R Productions’ Phantom.
Near the musical’s end, Cinderella’s husband, Prince Charming,
says to her as they part forever, “I was raised to be charming,
not sincere.” That seems to be the governing aesthetic concept
here: charming, but not sincere. Into the Woods is
that rare musical that has plenty of both qualities inherently,
but the latter is sorely lacking in this particular production.