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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Into the Woods
By DL Simmons.

Though you may encounter wolves
You can't just act / You have to listen
You can't just act / You have to think

— Company.
The Cast
"Be careful what you wish for" may be the moral of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's popular "family" musical Into the Woods, but there's nothing immoral or inherently wrong with aspiration. Barrington Stage Company has mounted an ambitious production with this whale of a show, and their desire to pull it off successfully is nothing to disparage.

. To those unfamiliar with this musical's Byzantine plot — or plots, for there are several — try to imagine a kind of Pulp Children's Fiction: the sagas of Cinderella, Jack in the Beanstalk, Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood become intersecting subplots in a much darker narrative not to their liking or understanding. Nice people die horrible deaths. Good intentions backfire. Bad deeds go unpunished. But instead of a Tarantino movie's hipster chatter, we hear these characters' every thought, from random to profound, sung out loud … in a staggering cantata of complex arrangements for multiple voices. As others have noted, Act One is for the kids. Act Two is for their parents.

Given the play's sprawling text, what director Joe Calarco and his ensemble cast have accomplished is a marvel of technical staging. A modular set composed of tall/wide, open picture frames scuttles around the stage and unfolds in varying tableaux to suit each situation. Not only are the actors striking and re-setting these set pieces themselves, they must navigate around three open pits (for the orchestra) downstage. With several characters blinded and stumbling around in the course of the story, the blocking alone keeps the audience edgy in their seats, praying for no mishaps.

Fortunately, everyone in the role-hopping cast gets their turn to shine. Narrator Thom Sesma emcees the action with genial conviction whenever he's not swinging into action as the long-haired Mysterious Man. Clay Singer (Jack) and Amanda Robles (Cinderella) bring earnestness and perfect pitch to their somewhat dreary roles. As the Baker's Wife, Mara Davi clicks in the second act, when she discovers her character's vitality singing "Moments in the Woods." (Her relatively wan impression in Act One may be due to a sound mix glitch when I attended that left her lyrics difficult to hear at times.)

Hands down, the MVP is Jonathan Raviv, who makes for an unusually soulful and reflective Baker. Raviv carries the air of a haunted man — an artist going through life as an artisan. He finds muted colors and minor key changes in this tormented soul that more famous actors have missed, or avoided; his stillness serves the production well. Never does he appear uninvested in this humbled man and his preposterous predicament, in spite of playing a storybook character.

As the initially insouciant and sassy Red Riding Hood, Dorcas Leung will be the fan favorite. Long before devouring everything in her basket, she has the crowd eating out of her palm. Kevin Toniazzo-Naughton and Pepe Nufrio share a breezy camaraderie as the princely brothers whose sense of gallantry amounts to scouring the kingdom for crumpet-like medieval frat brothers. Toniazzo-Naughton along with Leung relish playing their incorrigible characters; both hit outrageous notes that play right into the viewer's sweet spot.

More of that dangerous rapport with the audience —breaking the metaphorical "fourth wall" to acknowledge their existence —would benefit the production. Because, on opening night, the cast occasionally seemed to perform for an imaginary crowd rather than the one in front of them. For a three-hour musical to sustain its momentum, audiences want (wish!) to engage with the troupe relating the story. And performers need our energy to feed their stamina. Inevitably this telling of Into the Woods will hit its stride once the technical aspects coalesce and the ensemble finds their collective groove. They're very close to it now, and more interaction with the audience could be the liberating factor.

Not to imply there aren't impressive displays in this BSC presentation already. Darren Cohen's musical direction is crisp and precise, which is astonishing considering there are more than seventy musical cues throughout (as noted by Artistic Director Julianne Boyd during her enthusiastic introduction). His nine-piece orchestra plays it tight and loose, as needed.

The singing is superb, and that's why we keep returning to Sondheim musicals, isn't it? To hear powerful, trained voices singing their characters' viewpoints in glorious counterpoint. No one in this cast falls down in that regard, with Mykal Kilgore (as the Witch) deserving special mention. When he belts "Last Midnight" late in the second act, it's the closest thing to a showstopper this musical has to offer. And while some of Kilgore's one-liners fall curiously flat, he reclaims his majesty with this fiery exit number.

The Witch's butterfly-encrusted gowns are the highlights of Jen Caprio's patchwork costume parade, with Toniazzo-Naughton's fur-and-leather fetish gear (as the Wolf) getting equal mileage. Her costumes adhere to the reddish color scheme in the first half, but then she surprises us by introducing subtle greens and blues in the second, darker half of the story. The shocking-pink fashion fails worn by Cinderella's step-divas are a wicked touch. So is their matching bubblegum hair, courtesy of J. Jared Janas.

Brian Prather's scenic design and Sherrice Mojgani's lighting design are effective without being especially evocative. Surely more complex than they look, the technical aspects are always shifting to convey the changing moods of the woods. Prather and Mojgani's chosen color accents —crimsons and russets – paint quite a mysterious forest. If only their designs suggested a magical forest, the atmosphere might cast a deeper spell.

Then again, Into the Woods ultimately is not a fairy tale about magic but a parable about practical parenting. "Careful the things you say," the Witch counsels us, "[because] children are listening." In this staging, whenever the actors and the audience members are in synch listening to each other, there's belief in happy endings.

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. Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine
Directed by Joe Calarco
Cast: Mykal Kilgore (The Witch) Jonathan Raviv (The Baker) Mara Davi (The Baker's Wife) Thom Sesma (Narrator) Dorcas Leung (Little Red Riding Hood) Clay Singer (Jack) Leslie Becker (Jack's Mother) Amanda Robles (Cinderella) Kevin Toniazzo-Naughton (Cinderella's Prince) Sarah Dacey Charles (Cinderella's Stepmother) Megan Orticelli (Florinda) Zoë Aarts (Lucinda) Anna Tobin (Rapunzel) Pepe Nufrio (Rapunzel's Prince) James Cella (The Steward)
Musical Direction: Darren R. Cohen
Choreography: Mayte Natalio
Scenic Designer: Brian Prather
Costume Designer: Jen Caprio
Lighting Designer: Sherrice Mojgani
Sound Designer: Matt Kraus
Hair-Makeup-Wig Designer: J. Jared Janas
Stage Manager: Renée Lutz
Running time: 170 minutes; one intermission
Barrington Stage Company, Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, Pittsfield, MA
From 6/19/19; closing 7/13/19
Reviewed by DL Simmons at June 22 performance

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