Enchanting musical meanders in the woods

By Bridgette M. Redman

It can be a daring feat to open a summer repertory season of seven shows with the intricately challenging Stephen Sondheim musical, "Into the Woods."

Hope Summer Repertory Theatre presented a beautiful production of "Into the Woods" slightly marred by technical stumbles and opening night jitters that are likely to smooth out as the run continues through the end of July.

Sondheim eagerly mixes the fairy tales of the Baker and His Wife, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, with a few dashes of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. All these characters stumble over each other in the woods as they play out their traditional stories in the first act. All is not over when their happy endings arrive. Act Two brings out the consequences of their choices with themes that explore parenting, making choices, taking responsibility, infidelity and recovering from losses.

The sweeping set in the DeWitt Theatre was beautifully designed and constructed, immediately evoking the storybook world with an open page and a castle-decked book cover. Indeed, everything about the show was beautiful to look at, from the stage dressing to the costumes to the hair and makeup design. The clever use of stagehands eliminated the need for set changes and kept the nearly three-hour musical moving quickly. The stagehands became a part of the story as they transformed from puppeteers to horses to baking shelves to potential sacrificial victims.

In a musical, the sound can be one of the most challenging aspects to balance. The lush and talented orchestra was placed backstage with a screen between them and the audience. Their amplification was uneven. They played a wide variety of witty musical cues that sometimes overpowered the performers. Nor were they aided by the mikes going out on the actors so that sometimes they could be heard and sometimes they could not.

Standing out in the cast were Noah Putterman and Hayley Gailbraith as the Baker and his Wife, Alison Davi as Cinderella, and Micheal Hanson and Micheal Haller as the two princes. Putterman and Gailbraith had delightful comic timing to go with their amazingly strong singing voices and clear enunciation. They sometimes seemed overly uncomfortable with each other, but shined in their scenes with others, particularly Gailbraith with Davi and Putterman with David Studwell who played the narrator and the mysterious man.

Davi executed the indecisive would-be princess with beautiful precision and moving sentiment. She endowed Cinderella with a moral sensitivity and gentleness that blossomed in her final scene with the prince. She evolved from the cinder girl who ran away from making a choice to the composed princess who could make even the most difficult of choices with grace and dignity. Her skill at pratfalls injected a great deal of humor into her scenes as well.

Hanson and Haller were standouts with their delightful "Agony" sequences in both acts. Their prince-like stances personified their cavalier attitudes without crossing over into cartoonishness. Their diction was perfectly in synch with each other and they almost made the shallow princes sympathetic.

Cat Stephani as the Witch turned in a mixed performance. There were times -- such as when singing "The Last Midnight" -- that she owned the stage and, in the greatest tradition of musicals, raised the rafters with her belting. In the first act, though, she too frequently swallowed the ends of her sentences and they became lost in the amplified music that overpowered her. Her performance in particular was plagued by the technical mishaps of the evening with her pyrotechnics not always working, her mike sometimes going out on her or emitting feedback.

Steven Moore starts out his portrayal of Jack with a bold choice that is not carried through the rest of the show. Even though he sings of the sky changing him, the changes seemed more dramatic than warranted.

Moore and Katie Hamilton-Meier (Little Red Riding Hood) had the challenge of playing the youngest characters on the stage. While Moore's Jack starts out seeming young, Hamilton-Meier's Red Riding Hood never does. They both give a portrayal of characters that appear to be peers to Cinderella and the Baker, making the end of the show somewhat bumpy in its closing.

Hamilton-Meier in particular lacked the childishness and innocence that is often imbibed in the character. The flatness made the words that others said about her ring hallow, nor was her taunting of Jack about the harp convincing because neither had been childish enough up to that point.

David Colacci's direction was at many times inspired -- in particular with his staging. His vision flowed consistently through the show, emphasizing the consequences of the stories that we tell. Meribeth Kisner's choreography was best when there were only a few people on stage. The transition scenes were oddly designed with random characters being assigned lines that traditionally belong to the one whose story they describe. There was no storytelling in this choreography, just an attention to dance steps and bodies.

The always difficult transition scenes between midnights and acts with its speedy lyrics needed more practice. Some actors were very clear, others were nearly impossible to understand.

There is much in this production that is beautifully presented, intelligently thought out and superbly sung. It shows every sign of being able to mop up its opening night shortfalls and transform into a magical production that will enchant its summer audiences.

REVIEW:

'Into the Woods'

. Hope Summer Repertory Theatre at DeWitt Theatre, 141 E. 12th St., Holland. Plays in rotating repertory through July 31. $20-$26. 616-395-7890. http://www.hope.edu/hsrt

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