Into The Woods
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'Into the Woods' at Playhouse Square is a gorgeously realized parable about dreams and desires

The Plain Dealer
by
Andrea Simakis January 13, 2017

CLEVELAND, Ohio - For those unfamiliar with "Into the Woods," currently casting its spell in a thoroughly enchanting Fiasco Theater production at the Connor Palace, let me offer this primer: Stay for the second act.


The actors deliver the same message from the stage before the show begins.

That's because early on, the classic musical by Broadway giants Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine promises to be a light romp featuring the intersecting paths of characters from the pages of famous fairy tales - including Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Red Ridinghood. (Think of it as the world's artiest "crossover episode.")

And, by the end of Act 1, everything seems to have been tied up in a pretty little bow. So people often think, "time to pay the valet."

But there is an Act 2 and it gets . . . a little dark. Among other events, the dim-witted Jack angers a lady giant who comes down that beanstalk and . . . well, just imagine what you do when you see a bug.

Act 2 is when the show deepens into something really interesting, as pitch-black and tangled as the woods in which it's set.

That darkness is just one of the payoffs of this gorgeous, gloriously realized production - it upends our expectations that musicals are built to make us forget our cares. (What do you expect from Sondheim?)

The great Joe Garry of Broadway Buzz fame said it better in his pre-show talk Wednesday night: "Act 1 is 'happily,' Act 2 is 'ever after.' "

In that way, "Into the Woods" is so much like life, it's scary, as unsettling as having a witch for a mom - just ask poor Rapunzel (Lisa Helmi Johanson), who also makes an appearance.

"Look, if you just end with 'happily ever after,' then you're telling people that that's a sustainable state," explained Noah Brody, who co-directs the show with Ben Steinfeld.

 The reality of that message, or at least one of the messages in the blessedly chewy, layered work, is that being human means riding the waves and troughs of despair and desire, with moments of joy in between.

In "Into the Woods," that desire takes the form of wishes. A baker (Evan Harrington) and his wife (Eleasha Gamble) want a baby but can't conceive because of a witch's curse. The aforementioned sorceress (Vanessa Reseland) yearns for her lost youth and beauty, obliterated by yet another magical whammy.

She promises to reverse the curse on the Mr. and Mrs. if they bring her four essential ingredients for a new incantation, stuff they'll have to beg, borrow or steal from 'Lil Red (also played by Johanson) and the rest of the Grimm Brothers gang.

n item on the witch's shopping list is Jack's cow Milky White, played, in one of the show's most brilliant comic moves, by Darick Pead, his costume nothing more elaborate than a shirt and britches with a single bovine accent: a cow bell hanging around his neck that cast members occasionally thwack as a percussive instrument. (More Cowbell!)

Milky White and Jack (Philippe Arroyo) forge a wildly entertaining moo-mance, something that would have been impossible in the original 1987 Broadway production directed by Lapine, where Milky White was made of hard, light plastic. (The better to lift her, m'dears.)

The couple's quest takes them into the titular woods, here a dense forest of ropes, the dominant, dramatic set piece from scenic designer Derek McLane.

An ingenious, handmade, pulled-from-the attic aesthetic, one that asks the audience to imagine those ropes as trees, pervades the show from executive producer and Cleveland Heights son Orin Wolf. (His productions of "Beautiful - The Carole King Musical" and the Tony Award-winning "Once" have also visited Playhouse Square.)

In other flights of delightful fancy, pieces of folded paper fluttering in the hands of actors are birds; and the wolf sizing up Red and Grandma for lunch is a stuffed animal head on a wall mount, something that would look at home hanging in a lodge, manipulated by Anthony Chatmon II.

Joining the baker and his wife in dreaming of a better life is Cinderella (Laurie Veldheer). She'd love to drop the mop and go to the festival along with her awful stepsisters (Pead and Chatmon again, costumed by the endlessly inventive Whitney Locher in matching drapes hanging from a curtain rod) in hopes of meeting somebody Charming.

To single out any one performance would be doing a disservice to the rest. The Fiasco Theater model is based the idea that productions should be created from the ground up by an ensemble, and all the members of the touring company are sublime, and not simply because they do double duty as actor/musicians.

(In lieu of a pit orchestra, they play a handful of instruments to deliver the exquisite, just-enough orchestrations by Frank Galgano and Matt Castle that highlight the lyrics of Sondheim's haunting score.)

The performers bring a welcome specificity and individuality to their stock characters, a nod to Fiasco's roots as a company formed by classically trained actors. (Directors Brody and Steinfeld are two of the New York-based Fiasco's founding members.)

After everyone basically gets what he or she wants in the first act, the second concerns their struggles of living with dreams fulfilled. (I'd imagine some voters may soon identify.)

In a reprise of the act one song "Agony," Cinderella's prince, and Rapunzel's, too (the hardworking Chatmon and Pead, respectively), realize that though they beat impossible odds to win their lady loves, in the sage words of Mr. Spock, "having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting."

Cinderella is none too happy with her philandering prince either and perfectly articulates our eternal dilemma, singing, "But how can you know what you want/Till you get what you want/And you see if you like it?"

Be careful what you wish for, because it might just come true. It's a lesson we'd do well to heed, now and ever after.

Still, it's worth straying from that moral here, because one couldn't wish for a finer iteration of an American masterwork than Fiasco Theater's "Into the Woods."

Don't be afraid of the dark.