us to Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Into the Woods,’ now playing at Spreckels Performing Arts Center for one more weekend. Featuring a strong ensemble of North Bay performers, the show is bolstered by uniformly fine singing voices.
Those voices are the primary magic ingredient in the show, presented by Theater-at-Large, in an encore production of Stephen Sondheim’s crafty musical homage to—and reinvention of—the classic Brothers Grimm-style fairy tale. The show played to full houses and rave reviews last autumn in Novato, and now it gets a reprise run at Spreckels. It’s not a perfect transformation—but there is much to recommend this second look at Sondheim’s delightfully dark masterpiece.
First of all, there’s the jaw-dropping beauty of the music — spun as if from a magic loom by a chamber orchestra directed by Debra Chambliss—and the fine singing and playful presence of the cast. It’s plenty enough to make audiences glad they came, even if the woefully straightforward staging and a few clumsy moments of transition do come off as less than inspired.
What might have seemed cozy and warm at the much smaller Novato Theater Company space, struggles to fill out the massive Spreckels stage, often swallowing the best efforts of the first-rate cast.
About that cast… I do not have space or time to list them all, which is a shame, because like a village working together, each performer plays an important part.
As the sweet but conflicted Cinderella, Julianne Thompson Bretan gives one of many standout performances, and Krista Joy Serpa, as a fierce and funny Little Red Riding Hood, is a song-belting hoot. Also exceptional are Sean O’Brien and Allison Peltz as the show’s childless protagonists, the Baker and his wife, who launch the action with a scavenger hunt for magical items to reverse a witch’s curse and give them a baby.
Playing Cinderella’s ‘Prince Charming’ with a swashbuckling grin and a smarmy swagger, Anthony Martinez is wonderful, as is Johnny DeBernard, bringing a comforting presence—and supremely clear diction—as the mysterious narrator. And, as The Witch—the unexpected moral authority of this fractured fairy tale—Daniela Innocenti Beem is a force of nature, taking chances with the first part of the story, playing the witch for laughs rather than the usual menace, then morphing into a powerhouse of emotional strength and sheer vocal dynamite.
I only wish they’d used some of that brilliance in figuring out to stage to the show, especially the scenes where a giant invades the land and causes murderous mayhem. Use a projection for the giant, a big puppet, a shadow, whatever. Anything would have been better than simply having people point up at the imaginary giant coming at them from the audience, then run off stage and scream, only to have other people point off stage and say, “Oh no! They’re dead.”
And then there’s the moment when one character is magically transformed. A flash of lighting or something to add some magic to the moment would have been nice. But to watch that actor run off stage, change their look, then run back on . . . um, really?
Sorry. It’s just not magical.
And it’s not fair, when the performers are doing such a good job, to not to support them with matching effort in the staging of their scenes.
That criticism aside, I do recommend this show.
Yes, some of the effects may leave you underwhelmed, but there’s no escaping the forceful enchantment of this fine ensemble of actors, making merry magic with their mighty voices.
‘Into the Woods’ runs Thursday–Sunday through January 17 at Spreckels Performing Arts Center.