Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theater has led the pack this summer with a lineup of widely varied productions, all beautifully done.
Now, in the final show of the scheduled season, it seems it has saved the best for last.
It is no secret that my very favorite musical theater composer is Stephen Sondheim. I would, in fact, go miles to see/hear anything with which he is connected..
I have a Top Five list of favorites, at the very top of which (or, at least , in the number two spot) is ‘Into The Woods,” Sondheim’s version of fractured fairy tales, a collaboration with playwright James Lapine.
Not only is it a brilliant blending of familiar childhood favorites, but it is filled with a wildly weird assortment of characters, melodies that will not leave your head and a solid list of words — or phrases — to live by.
It also echoes everyone’s hope of getting through life’s darkest woods to find a happily ever after.
Being so committed to this piece, I approach every production with hope and fear. Hope that it will at least come close to my expectations and fear that it will not.
The minute we walked into the Wagon Wheel Theatre Wednesday evening, I knew the next few hours would exceed my highest expectations.
And I was right!!
Even before the music begins (and director Thomas N. Sterling and his always-excellent orchestra more than do justice to the intricate score), even before that, there is the jaw-dropping set by Ray Zupp (“Young Frankenstein,” “The Addams Family”) that leaves you standing in the lobby, staring over the seats and anxious to get a closer look.
I would say you have to see it to believe it, but…well, you really do! And that’s just the beginning!
The orchestra goes into the pit, announcements are made and the lights finally fade, to rise again on the woods and the inhabitants of its outlying areas:
Jack (Blake Bojewski), his Mother (Kathy Haskins) and Milky White (Grace Robinson), his cow;
Little Red Riding Hood (Allsun O’Malley) and her Granny (Jennifer Dow);
Cinderella (Sarah Ariel Brown), her stepmother (Leanne Antonio), her stepsisters Lucinda (Dow) and Florinda (Bailee Enderbrock), her father (Mike Yocum) and her Prince (Ben Ahlers);
the Baker (Riley McFarland) and his wife (Kelly Britt);
Rapunzel (Kira Ziringer) and her Prince (Michael Bradley);
plus assorted others — the Witch (Kira Lace Hawkins), the Big Bad Wolf (Ahlers), the Narrator/Mysterious Man (Brett Frazier) and the Steward (Michael Pacholski).
And no one who goes into the woods, comes out of the woods unchanged (or alive).
Put them all together and they make a formidable vocal ensemble, and ensemble work a la Sondheim is nothing if not formidable. Not only do they make it sound easy but, in spite of overlapping melodic lines and lyrics, quite easily understood.
Each of the major players has his/her share of solos and each delivers beautifully! Kira Lace Hawkins (who I now believe can do anything!) is completely unfazed by her opening speed-singing rap, her poignant duet with Ziringer and, of course, her show-stopping “The Last midnight.” And she definitely knows how to make an exit!!!
Britt is a pleasure to listen to in solo or duet and creates a no-nonsense wife who seeks motherhood but, yearning for a bit of romance, finds more than she bargained for.
O’Malley is a delightful Red Riding Hood, skipping into and around danger with naïve abandon., never mind that the Big Bad Wolf is on her trail. As the seductive Wolf, Ahlers sheds his fur to become Cinderella’s Prince and, with Bradley, shares my favorite double duet, “Agony,” which hilariously nails the shifting fancies of princes.
Bojewski and McFarland have wonderfully rich and strong baritone voices that audibly mark their changes from awkward young men to adult males, determined to come out of the woods on the right paths. It is easy to empathize with their journeys.
Frazier carries the strong narrative and shifts personas slickly to add to the overall mystery and Kathy Hawkins proves that, in or out of the woods, mothers are the same.
Must give applause to Robison. Never seen out of costume, and without singing a note, she gives a great deal of character and personality to long-suffering Milky White.
As always, Stephen R. Hollenbeck’s costumes are the icing on this cake, especially in facilitating the Witch’s transformation. Crowning Hollenbeck’s costumes are Dow’s varied (and secure) wigs, which here help the Witch regain youth and beauty.
“Into The Woods” is directed and choreographed (and the last includes a lot more than dancing here) by WW artistic director Scott Michaels, who continues to set the standards so high they would stop a lesser artist. Michaels just sails right over them!
Behind him — or beside him — are lighting designer Patrick Chan, who seems able to create fantasy with the flick of a switch,; sound designer Chris Pollnow, who supplies the balance between singers and instrumentalists; technical director Jacki Anderson, who makes sure all circuits are clear; production manager Mike Higgins and production stage manager Nick Voight, who is in charge when the lights go up.
Along with their respective crews, they create magic every two weeks of the summer in Warsaw.
Do not miss this one!!
INTO THE WOODS plays through Aug. 19 in the theater at 2517 E. Center St. in Warsaw. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 267-8041.