Theater Review: Vanderbilt Opera Theatre boldly goes into Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Woods’

sondheimFunny thing about life: You work hard, play by the rules and succeed in all of your ambitions. Yet at the end of the day you’re still miserable. That’s the idea driving Stephen Sondheim’s and James Lapine’s “Into The Woods,” the magnificent musical that Vanderbilt Opera Theatre presented Friday evening at Ingram Hall. The show repeats Sunday afternoon.

In this terrifically tangled thicket of Grimm fairy tales, a familiar cast of characters spend all of Act One striving to accomplish their goals, and all of Act Two watching their seemingly successful lives crumble into catastrophe. This denouement probably surprised no one. For Sondheim, who wrote the clever lyrics and music, and Lapine, who penned the imaginative book, the expression “happily ever after” was always an illusion.

woods-jackSo it stands to reason that most of the characters are delightfully dysfunctional. There’s a mouthy Little Red Riding Hood, her vengeful grandma and a svelte, sophisticated wolf (your sympathies lie squarely with the wolf in this wild, woodsy world); a nitwitted Jack of beanstalk fame, his nagging mother and beloved bovine; Cinderella and her punkish stepmother and stepsisters; a pair of amoral princes; a baker and his wife; and a nasty witch who also happens to be an overbearing parent to a hysterical Rapunzel.

The characters inhabit a dark forest that is a symbol of their psyches. As they move deeper into the woods, they must confront their own demons – not to mention stalking giants. These are flawed people who live in an unforgiving world. Yet they are also a compassionate bunch, and so you can’t help but root for them as they deal with adulterous spouses and suffocating parents. At one point, Cinderella notes to her faithless Prince Charming: “My father’s house was a nightmare. Your house was a dream. Now I want something in between.” You hope she gets there.

woods-sceneSondheim’s lyrics, as usual, are complex wordplays that expertly convey subtle, nuanced messages. The musical itself is busy, with a stage full of characters often singing and acting out a variety of scenes simultaneously. To her credit, stage director Gayle Shay has created a beautifully lucid production in which all of the action unfolds with clarity and an uncanny sense of inevitability. Conductor Robin Fountain, for his part, led the Vanderbilt University Orchestra in accompaniment that was colorful, expressive and supportive.

One thing’s for sure: Shay couldn’t have hoped for a better cast. Julia Di Fiore was an utterly bewitching Witch, and she sang such unforgettable numbers as “Children Will Listen” with immediacy and deep feeling. She fully inhabited the showiest role in the musical, but “Into The Woods” is no star vehicle. It’s an ensemble work, and the rest of the cast was equally strong.

woods-witchMatt Brennan as the Baker and Erin Aurednik as the Baker’s Wife were convincing as the sane couple trying to make their way through an insane world. Will Nichols was a lovably bumbling Jack, and Charlotte Ulrich managed to capture both the worldliness and naiveté of Little Red Riding Hood.

The entire cast gave strong vocal performances, but Sofie Christensen, as Cinderella, deserves special mention for singing with a voice that was especially silky and operatic. Kelby Carlson, who, among other things, is an occasional contributor to ArtsNash, was a sobering Narrator who successfully conveyed the absurdity of this fairy-tale world.

woods-princesAustin Vitaliano and Steven Fiske delivered appropriately solipsistic performances as the two Princes (not surprisingly, Fiske was equally convincing in his dual role as the Wolf). Jordan Amann’s golden voice perfectly matched the color of her character Rapunzel’s hair. And Charles Calotta was a hoot as the Steward, playing this character as a kind of Truman Capote-like eccentric.

Also giving worthy performances were Mary Byrd (Narrator’s Daughter), Paige Stinnett (Jack’s Mother), Sarah Heilman (Cinderella’s Stepmother), Danielle Bavli and Leah Hollingshead (Cinderella’s Stepsisters), Katie Arata (Cinderella’s Mother and offstage voice of the Giant), Benjamin Kahan (Mysterious Man) and Madeline Laird (Granny).

woods-castThe setting for “Into The Woods” is a far-off kingdom, and the action takes place long ago and in the future. Scenic designer Andy Bleiler, scenic artist Candace Randolph and costume designer June Kingsbury beautifully suggested this ambiguity with a production that had a steampunk look. The canopy of the dark forest was a bramble of spiky gears and levers. Think of it as the scary woods of Fritz Lang’s imagination.

Friday’s performance attracted an overflow crowd, and ushers had to turn some people away at curtain time. Sondheim fans, therefore, had better arrive early to Sunday’s matinee performance if they want to live happily ever after.

PHOTO CREDIT: Performance photos by Steve Green, Vanderbilt University.

IF YOU GO

Vanderbilt Opera Theatre and Vanderbilt University Orchestra present Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.” The performance is 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 17 at Ingram Hall, 2400 Blakemore Ave. and is free.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.

Comments

  1. Gary Stewart says:

    John, thank you for such a well-written review. I have never seen this play although I love Sondheim. Yours is the first review that has made me WANT to see the show. I enjoy the way you describe the performers, the sets, and the total dysfunction. I feel like I can actually relate.

  2. ” I enjoy the way you describe the performers, the sets, and the total dysfunction. I feel like I can actually relate.” Hey Gary, you and me both! Cheers.