Venture ‘Into the Woods’ at the Carnegie

this is an excellent show done with exuberance by a highly talented and animated cast

Review by Doug Iden

What are the consequences of self-aggrandizing wishes and actions?  What happens when we make decisions, either good or bad?  These are issues addressed in the concept musical Into the Woods playing now through August 27 at the Carnegie Theatre in Covington.  

Playwright James Lapine and composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim meld several classic Grimm (or grimmer) Brothers’ fairy tales with a new tale about a Baker (Tyler Martin) and his Wife (Sarah Jane Nelson) who are cursed into a childless existence by a Witch (Sarah Pansing).  The other characters, introduced in the opening title song number, include Cinderella (Emma Rose Johnson), Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel (Madison Mosley), Jack, of beanstalk fame (August Bagg), a Narrator and Mysterious Man (Roger Dumas, Jr.) and others playing multiple roles (Jackson Reagin, Jamal Stone and Helen Raymond-Goers).

Each of the characters have wishes, represented by the continuing motif “I Wish”.  Cinderella wants to attend the king’s festival, Jack wants his cow Milky White to give milk, Little Red wants to take sweets to Grandma’s house and Rapunzel wants a prince to save her from her entrapment.  The Witch demands that the Baker find four things: a milky white cow, a red cape, yellow hair and a golden slipper before she will remove the curse and allow them to have children.  So, the Baker ventures into the wood to meet the witch’s demands and soon interacts with the other characters and their quests.  At that point, the plot gets a little entangled.

As in most Sondheim shows, there are multi-layered themes.  Sondheim and Lapine add to the complexity of the fairy tales with commentaries on coming of age, social and societal responsibilities, wish fulfillment and moral equivocation.  Multiple relationships are also addressed including child/parent, husband/wife, lovers, neighbors, etc.  The “woods” represents different emotions to the characters and are in flux.  For some, the woods are home and solace (Little Red), a prison (Rapunzel), a quest (the baker), and a search for her mother (Cinderella).  

There is some dialogue, primarily by the Narrator who speaks directly to the audience, but most of the show is sung.  There are definite songs but much of the music is done as a series of motifs or character themes which are repeated with different lyrics.  Sondheim’s music is a challenge and few contemporary singers dare to try but the majority of the cast are CCM students who are definitely able to handle the music effectively.  Additionally, many of the lyrics are delivered in a rapid-fire manner so the actors must be able to enunciate well since most of the story (which gets complicated) is told through the music.  Several times the music sounds like rap.  All of the singers were superb but occasionally the music drowned out the performers.

Some of the musical highlights include the opening number with the entire cast, “It Takes Two” (Martin and Nelson), “Agony” (Reagin and Stone along with a reprise), “Moments in the Woods” (Nelson), “Giants in the Sky” (Bagg), “Stay with Me” and “Last Midnight” (Pansing), “No One is Alone” (Johnson, Mosley, Bagg, Nelson) and the finale “Children Will Listen” with the entire cast.

The Princes in INTO THE WOODS.

There is also a lot of humor coming from the dialogue and numerous sight gags involving costumes and props.  Milky White, the cow, is a big white milk container puppet driven by Stone, both Stone and Reagin play Cinderella’s step-sisters with half dresses in drag, a quilt is used to hide the slaying of the wolf, Rapunzel’s long hair and trunks spelling out “Once Upon a Time”.  The costumes are designed by Cat Schmeal Swope.  Most of the over-the-top, physical comedy is provided by Stone and Reagin.

The set design by Tyler Gabbard is simple but effective with, essentially, a bare stage in front and stairs on either side leading to a catwalk in the back of the stage.  The “woods” are represented by steamers hanging from the superstructure.

The show is performed at a frenetic pace led by Director/Choreographer Katie Johannigman.  There are few dances, per se, but the cast, on a small stage, is constantly in motion with many entrances and exits up and down the aisles of the theater.  I felt as though I was in the infield at the Indianapolis 500 Speedway.

Little Red and Jack in INTO THE WOODS.

Overall, this is an excellent show done with exuberance by a highly talented and animated cast.

So, grab a broomstick, your Grimms’ book of fairy tales and your trusty trail guide and head Into the Woods continuing at the Carnegie until August 27.  Next up for the Carnegie is Rent which will run in rotation with Into the Woods and a new musical George Remus. Get your tickets HERE.

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