Theater Review: Studio Tenn Takes a Lovely Trip ‘Into the Woods’

IMG_6179FRANKLIN, Tenn. – How do you go Into the Woods – and just as importantly, how do you get out? Studio Tenn has a pretty good idea: It’s built a production expressly for the intimate confines of Franklin Theatre that entertains and intrigues in equal measure.

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s tale-of-two-halves is a musical that provokes strong feelings among theater fans; for some it’s a masterpiece, for others a show where well-constructed Brothers Grimm-inspired Act I fun gives way to a darker (and some feel too preachy) second act overburdened with ballads. I’ve always liked the show because of what happens in the latter half, though – nothing tidy or easy, life’s travails in microcosm after the fantasy of “happily ever after” that takes us to intermission.

IMG_5190The debate over the show’s different parts has been part of Into the Woods since it was first performed at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre in 1986, and will likely continue as long as the musical is produced. That was certainly the case with the Public Theater’s 2012 Shakespeare in the Park mounting in New York’s Central Park with Donna Murphy and Amy Adams and more opinions are sure to follow next year when Meryl Streep plays the witch in the 2014 film version.

IMG_5602_1I mention that 2012 outing – itself based on a 2010 Olivier Award-winning production in London’s Regent’s Park – because Studio Tenn Artistic Director Matt Logan, the director and designer of this show, was clearly inspired to some degree by Timothy Sheader’s imaginative revival. There are some touches Logan borrows, such as having a boy act as narrator (adorable nine-year-old Gus O’Brien) – which further underlines the parent-and-child tensions of Into the Woods – and a Wolf (Patrick Waller) who looks like the front man from a heavy-metal rock band. And like Sheader Logan eschews the traditional fairy-tale trappings when it comes to much of the costuming – a mishmash of styles from the past five decades weaves its way through the gear donned by his cast so that Cinderella and Rapunzel’s princes (Waller and Ross Bridgeman, respectively) have more Duran Duran about them than Disney and Little Red Ridinghood (Marissa Rosen) looks like a post-Punk princess.

IMG_5837In a larger sense, though, both productions have a retro flavor that is fitting for our time. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the often sumptuous look and feel of the 1987 Broadway production that featured Bernadette Peters and Joanna Gleason, but the approaches taken by Logan, Sheader and others remind us that theater is constantly renewing itself rather than freezing in artistic amber – after all, it’s live performance, not a museum exhibition.

Logan and co-set designer Mitch White have already shown they know how to create the illusion of a larger playing space at the Franklin Theatre (a good example was the adaptable raft they built for Studio Tenn’s take on Big River).  Now with three doors, some tree branches and a grassy knoll everything from the homes of such characters as Jack’s Mother (Matthew Carlton), the Baker (Brent Maddox) and the Baker’s Wife (Kim Bretton) to the all-important woods is ably represented. At top is a bower that serves both as the door-less prison of Rapunzel (Emily Tello Speck, also the show’s clever choreographer) and the hiding place for Jack (Joey Barreiro) when his beanstalk adventures go awry. Add Stephen Moss’ lighting contrasts and the darker world of this musical is complete.

IMG_5822What about the performances? Well, the chances of Logan casting actors who can’t handle Sondheim’s often-challenging lyrics is about the same as one’s chance of winning the Powerball so it’s not surprising that those lyrics and the words in Lapine’s book are handled well throughout. (While opening night had some sound issues, for the most part those sung and spoken words were heard; I doubt those first-show gremlins will persist during the run.) But it’s still a marvel to watch and hear Nan Gurley, whose long career has had many well-earned triumphs, take us on the Witch’s tortured path through some tricky wordplay (parts of a favorite passage: Greens, greens and nothing but greens: /Parsley, peppers, cabbages and celery, /Asparagus and watercress and /Fiddle ferns and lettuce—!…Rooting through my rutabaga, /Raiding my arugula and /Ripping up my rampion / (My champion! My favorite!)— /I should have laid a spell on him /Right there). She movingly paints a portrait of a mother that knows no parent can ever fully protect their child from life’s dangers – Gurley’s handling of “Stay With Me” is one of the points where that fear is poignantly palpable. And her awesome “Last Midnight” is quite a capper.

IMG_5602Kayce Cummings as Cinderella is another standout. She’s got the right amount of poise and beauty for the role, but she’s also got a gorgeous singing voice that fills each moment from “Cinderella at the Grave” to “No One is Alone” with color and vitality.

Rosen’s Little Red is so funny – I don’t think I’ve laughed so much at that character since watching Danielle Ferland in the 1991 TV adaptation that included nearly the entire original Broadway cast. Carlton is a hoot as Jack’s mother, and a reassuring voice as the Mysterious Man; Waller’s work on “Hello Little Girl” is a delight, and he and Bridgeman give us an “Agony” that is, well, very charming. Kudos as well to Barreiro, whose Jack is still lovable despite the trouble he causes.

IMG_6540Maddox and Bretton’s characters are at the emotional heart of the show, and they more than keep that heart beating. Among their highlights is the “It Takes Two” duet, but apart they are just as effective; Bretton’s powerful “Moments in the Woods” and Maddox’s hook-up with Carlton for a thoughtful “No More” provide two examples of their thoroughly engaging work.

There’s excellent support from Speck (who doubles as a sultry Harp), Garris Wimmer as the Steward, Susan Swindell as Granny and Cinderella’s Stepmother, Laura Matula as Lucinda, Susannah Smith White as Florinda and Marguerite Lowell as Cinderella’s Mother and voice of the Giant. It’s a measure (to borrow from my days as a sportswriter) of how deep the bench is when you consider the actors I just mentioned have lengthy lists of professional credits no less impressive than those attached to this production’s leading players.

IMG_5962So, why do I feel Studio Tenn knows how to go Into the Woods and get out when it’s all over? This production takes us through the harsh realities of Act II as well as it presents the happy endings of Act I with coherent and clever designs, clear purpose and fine performances from the actors (and the orchestra expertly led by Music Director/Conductor Bryan Louiselle as well). There’s no need for magic spells – or beans – to produce an enjoyable evening at the theater when you have Studio Tenn to do it for you.

Studio Tenn’s Into the Woods directed by Matt Logan runs through Nov. 3 at the historic Franklin Theatre (419 Main St.). For more information or to purchase tickets, visit StudioTenn.com or call the Franklin Theatre box office at (615) 538-2076.

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IMG_5941*Photos by ANTHONYMATULA courtesy Studio Tenn.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman’s “The People vs Larry Flynt” among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).