Big Risk Offers Big Reward For Latest Ringwald Show

By Dana Casadei

Suzan M. Jacokes displays both her comedic and musical chops in The Ringwald Theatre's production of "Into the Woods." Photo: Brandy Joe Plambeck.

The Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine 1987 musical "Into The Woods" has been done numerous times all over the world, from local theaters to grander stages. Productions vary, but The Ringwald is bringing a fresh perspective to its stripped-down version of the very complex, sometimes overdone musical, and knocks it out of the park. Or in this case, woods.

Before the show began, all of the characters entered the set looking slightly terrified and were dressed in modern clothes. Slowly they introduced themselves to each other, and while this happened they gradually transformed into their character. The Baker's Wife (Eva Rosenwald) put Little Red Riding Hood's (Molly McMahon) hair into pigtails. Then Cinderella's (Kryssy Becker) fur vest was taken off, as was Mysterious Man's (Dan Morrison) suit coat, and the modern technology, such as cell phones and an iPad, disappeared. Once the clock hit eight, the narrator (Jeff Bobick, who is also the show's music director and plays the piano) started, and the Joe Bailey-directed show truly began.

A vital element about the show's unique start is Phill Harmer's set, which in no way resembles the woods. It looks like a tornado shelter, with shades of grey covering its multiple levels, while still having a tower for Rapunzel and a place for the piano on an upper tier. Before the actual musical began, there was also a tornado siren playing on occasion, instantly making the characters on stage panic. At first the tornado siren felt random and out of place, but once the show continued, everything came together.

This beginning leads to a very inventive ending to a story that follows some favorite fairy tale characters before and after they receive their happily-ever-afters.

While it's common for actors in the show to play dual roles, The Ringwald's production only has 10 actors portraying the multitude of characters. To put this in perspective, the original 1987 Broadway production had nearly double the amount of actors, and a much fuller orchestra compared to this production's lone piano. But this isn't the first time it's been done this way.

In 2013, the McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey did a similar production, with 10 actors and few instruments, to rave reviews from The New York Times critic Ben Brantley. As Brantley said in his review's opening paragraph, "Sometimes you can't perceive the true beauty of something until you've seen it naked...[But] it certainly holds true for a certain venerated, usually overdressed musical..." This rings extremely true here, and large credit must be given to Bailey.

Bailey's direction in this stripped-down version allows viewers to focus more on the stories and lyrics. This has the ability to make us more invested in the character's choices, because there's nothing for them to hide behind. Bailey's opener serves as an excellent introduction into the rest of the show, since the entire cast is almost always on stage reacting to other characters' stories. Since they got introduced to each other before it began, they seem just as interested to see what happens next as the audience is.

Bailey has also created a production with a cast that gets to play up the musical's comedy and show off their comedic skills. Even during some of the more somber moments of the musical, there is still a laugh or two.

Even though some of the vocalists weren't great - a few areas were rather pitchy - that's not the most important element to the show. Since there is very little flash to this production, it makes the actors' portrayals all the more essential to be spot-on; there's nothing to distract the audience. Thankfully the actors all dive into their characters and make each as memorable as the last, even those that are playing more than one.

As far as the songs go, "Agony," both the full song and the reprise, and "Witch's Lament," are the show's standout numbers for very different reasons. "Agony" brings the best out of David Moan and Richard Payton, who harmonize and play off each other with ease. Suzan Jacokes' "Witch's Lament" is sung a cappella, which adds another level to the song and makes it all the more heartbreaking to hear, but beautiful to listen to.

Going back to the show's simplistic elements would be the costumes, created by Tracy Murrell. They are simple yet tell you all you need to know about who the character is. The Baker's (Jamie Richards) apron and the Wolf's (Moan) fur hat are just a few examples. Properties master Alexander H. Trice works wonders with the overall theme, turning a feather duster into a chicken. And just wait until you see Rapunzel's (Drew Arnold) hair.

The Ringwald is a theater where traditional isn't a word often thrown around when describing its productions. Thankfully, even a more "traditional" musical like "Into The Woods" isn't safe from being transformed into something completely unique and wonderful.

REVIEW:

'Into the Woods'

The Ringwald Theatre, 22742 Woodward Ave., Ferndale. 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday & Monday, and 3 p.m. Sunday through June 2. 2 hours, 45 minutes. $10-25. 248-545-5545. http://www.theringwald.com

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