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Fables with foibles: C-R Productions’ Into the Woods.

The Forest for the Trees
By James Yeara

Into the Woods
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine, directed by Brad Aspel, musical direction by Kate Kaufman
C-R Productions, Cohoes Music Hall, through Sept. 28

Into 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 touch.

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 dumb.

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.

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