Pictured from left to right: Michael Luongo, Billy Casey, Kaylee Annable, Brooke Bauersfeld (front) in Into the Woods.
Photo courtesy of Derby Dinner Playhouse
Into The Woods
Book by James Lapine
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Lee Buckholz
Reviewed by Craig Nolan Highley
Entire contents are copyright © 2016, Craig Nolan Highley. All rights reserved.
As soon as you walk into the theater, you can tell Derby Dinner is attempting something different with their latest production.
The entire auditorium is decorated in branches and leaves, a tree off to one side, a castle tower on the other, but not on the stage, out among the tables and chairs of the audience. The stage features a giant book, which can only mean something very literary is about to commence. And sure enough, when the play begins, the book opens and the assorted characters emerge from it to relate the tale.
It may be the cleverest use of the Derby Dinner performance space I have seen yet, and it’s all in service of one of my favorite musicals, Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. And for the most part, the cast and production team do the material justice.
For the unfamiliar, Into the Woods is a very clever musical comedy with dramatic undertones, which combines several classic fairy tales into one cohesive narrative. The stories of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood, and Jack and the Beanstalk are combined with an original story of a Baker and his wife trying to undo a witch’s curse. Librettist James Lapine also borrowed heavily from Bruno Bettelheim’s psychoanalysis of fairy tale tropes, The Uses of Enchantment. The result is an entertaining revisiting of the familiar that doesn’t shy away from the darkness that lies beneath the surface of each of these characters.
It’s also a very popular show; since it premiered in 1987 on Broadway, it has toured, revived on Broadway, broadcast on television, moved to London and off-Broadway productions, and been made into a feature film. But the show works best in its original form, on stage, and Derby Dinner has created an impressive production.
Let me get the negative out of the way first. The show is a bit rougher around the edges than what I’m used to seeing at the Playhouse. I noticed a few dropped lines and missed lyrics, and there were several awkward cuts to the script and score that I’m sure were done for the sake of time but they messed with the flow of the narrative. Also, the Disney World-style Wolf costume with its enormous mask/headpiece seemed to sabotage the performance of Billy Casey, the actor inside it. During the Wolf’s big number, he was already out of breath when the song started, and by the end he wasn’t even singing on key. Since Casey later in the show did a marvelous job playing Cinderella’s Prince, I can only assume the heavy and bulky costume was to blame. Also, an ill-advised attempt to shoe-horn a bit from the movie version into the two Princes’ “Agony” number just doesn’t read well on stage.
Beyond that, though, the show is fantastic. The performances are across the board endearing, with special kudos to Sara Elizabeth King as the Witch, Matthew Brennan as the Baker, Jillian Prefach as the Baker’s wife, and Ryan Burch as Rapunzel’s Prince. King brings the house down with her ten o’clock number “The Last Midnight,” in an emotional climax to her character’s arc. Brennan and King are simply adorable and really make you feel for their dilemma, especially with the heartbreaking later developments. And Burch really nails the role of a vacuous, self-absorbed and yet still somehow loveable lunkhead, and has arguably the best singing voice of all the males in the cast.
On the technical side, the show earns top marks as well. I’ve already said what a great set they have, and kudos to set designer Ron Riall (working from a concept from director Lee Buckholz) for pulling it off. As usual for a DDP production, Andrew Duff’s lighting design nicely punctuates the mood of the piece, brightness here, darkness there, a splash of color over there, really setting a mood. And finally, Sharon Murray Harrah’s costumes (with the possible exception of the performance-killing wolf costume) add a nice period touch.
I should point out that most of the flaws I noticed will probably work themselves out as the show runs (I attended on a preview night, only the second time they had an audience) and I really did have a marvelous time. A source tells me this is the first time Derby Dinner has done a Sondheim musical, and I, for one, hope it will not be the last!
Featuring Jennifer Andres, Kaylee Annable, Dick Baker, Brooke Bauersfield, Kyle Braun, Matthew Brennan, Ryan Burch, Billy Casey, Harli Cooper, Brittany Carricato Cox, Jim Hesselman, Kristina Huegel, Lem Jackson, Paul Kerr, Sara King, Debbie King-Raque, Elizabeth Loos, Michael Luongo, Katherine Nickerson, Jillian Prefach, and
Into The Woods
February 23 April 3, 2016
Derby Dinner Playhouse
525 Marriot Drive
Craig Nolan Highley has been active in local theatre as an actor, director and producer for more than 12 years. He has worked with Bunbury Theater, Clarksville Little Theatre, Finnigan Productions, Louisville Repertory Company, Savage Rose Classical Theatre Co., and WhoDunnit Murder Mystery Theatre among others. He has been a member of the Wayward Actors Company since 2006, and currently serves as their Board President. Craig’s reviews have also appeared in TheatreLouisville and Louisville Mojo.