Review: Into the Woods at Heritage Players

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Title

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours and 45 minutes with one 15-minute intermission

Fairy tales are probably some of the best fodder for stage adaptations because, after all, they’re entire stories that are already written and told. It’s up to the author and, if a musical, the lyricist and composer of that stage adaptation to put the story together with a script and songs. In the case of Heritage Players latest offering, Into the Woods with Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and Book by James Lapine, Directed by TJ Lukacsina, with Music Direction by Chris Pinder and Choreography by Rikki Howie does something refreshingly different. By intertwining a bunch of different stories into one big story, we get a delightful, interesting spin on what happens in the life of these popular characters outside of the stories we all know and love.

Briefly, Into the Woods gathers together the title characters of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and a few other popular tales and throws them together in a story of trying to our happy-ever-after in life, regardless of what it throws at you, and learning that life, in fact, is not a fairy tale. Through aspects of each story, we learn a little more about these characters and realize all is not always what it seems.

Set Design by Ryan Geiger, though simple, is fitting and quite effective. The unit set is good for different settings with a simple opening of a swinging panel and small props and set pieces. For a complex show like this, this set design is well-thought out and doesn’t hinder the action, but helps by not getting in the way. Kudos to Geiger for an inspiring design.

Andrew Malone, an established Costume Designer in the area, reveals his able talents in this production. Every character is fitted appropriately to character but unique enough that no one is the traditional image we know from the stories. This piece gives the costumer a chance to be fanciful as well as elegant and Malone hit the nail on the head in this production.

Sound Design by Brent Tomchick and Lighting Design by TJ Lukacsina had some issues, but overall, the design worked for the prouduction. Whether it was a dependency on microphones or directorial neglect, there were many characters I couldn’t understand because I could not hear them. A few of the members of the ensemble didn’t project as they should and their lines were lost. Of course, the mics themselves had their own troubles of not being at the correct levels or even turned on at the correct times. Lighting Design is its own beast and can make or break a show. Now, Lukacsina’s design certainly did not break the show, but there were curious choices throughout. A favorite covering of light seems to represent some sort of light and shadows through leaves, as if in the woods, so, I get it, but it doesn’t do the ensemble any favors as most of them are lost in the shadows. It gets rather dark at times, as well. Yes, there are dark parts in this show… metaphorically, they don’t have to actually be IN the dark. Again, there were some technical issues with Sound and Lighting Design but, overall, it is suitable for this production and doesn’t take away from the story or the performance. In fact, it just might need a little tweaking or closer attention because for the most part, it works.

Choreography by Rikki Howie is minimal, at best. Not because Howie is lazy but the piece itself doesn’t call for a lot of dancing. There are a few moments when the cast gathers together to do what look like jazz squares (or box steps, depending on where you came up), and hand gestures but, that’s all that is required, really. Most of the songs simply need staging and not a lot of bouncing around. Howie does her best with the material she’s given and, all in all, the choreography is delightful. The cast is comfortable and that makes them look good, which is somewhat the point.

Chris Pinder tackles this piece as its Music Director and his work is to be applauded. Teaching and working on a Sondheim score is no easy feat and Pinder has succeeded. He seems to understand the music and its nuances and he has guided his cast to give a splendid performance. Not only does he have a strong ensemble, vocally, he has a phenomenal orchestra backing them up. Well-rehearsed, and spot on, the orchestra is near flawless with this score and adds great value to the production as a whole. Included in the orchestra are Chris Pinder, Conductor; David Booth, Flute; Matt Elky, Clarinet; Allyson Wessley, Horn; Kevin Shields, Trumpet; Lynn Graham, Piano; John Keister, Synthesizer; Zachary Sotelo, Percussion; Naomi Chang-Zajic and Susan Beck, Violins; David Zajic and Kyle Gilbert, Viola; Ina O’Ryan and Juliana Torres, Cello; and Joe Surkiewicz, Bass.

TJ Lukacsina takes the helm of this production as its Director and, as stated, taking on any Sondheim piece is a challenge but Lukacsina, with a few minor hiccups, seems to have stepped up to the challenge. Casting is superb and his staging is concise making for a good pace and tempo for a naturally long piece with smooth, quick transitions. Overall, the piece is focused with a clear vision from Lukacsina and it moves along nicely… in Act I. Act II in this production has its problems but it’s mainly in the staging of this fast-paced script. Actors seem to be coming and going haphazardly through the various entrances and exits on the stage and if one is not familiar with the piece already, it’s easy to see how one might get a little perplexed in Act II. With cleaner staging, Act II may run a bit more smoothly. Again, the hiccups are minor and, overall, Lukacsina seems to have a good comprehension of the piece and a good grasp on what the characters are about making for a well thought-out, delightful production.

Moving on to the performance aspect of this piece, Todd Hochkeppel takes on the supporting role of the Narrator, the first character we encounter and Hochkeppel gives a respectable performance but, compared to the other characterizations, seems a bit over the top at times with grand, sweeping gestures that could be pulled back a bit. However, he has a great booming voice and fits well in the role.

A couple of other supporting but important roles that move the piece along are the Mysterious Man played by Richard Greenslit and the Steward to the royal family, played by Sean Miller. Both Greenslit and Miller give commendable performances and make the most of the stage time they have.

The princes, played by Josh Schoff (Rapunzel’s Prince) and John Carter (Cinderalla’s Prince), are well cast in the roles and give admirable performances but their rendition of “Agony” falls a little flat. This is one of the most well-known numbers in this piece and it’s a hilarious song. Schoff and Carter sing the song beautifully, but really just stood opposite each other and didn’t seem to capitalize on the physical humor and melodramatic presentation that makes this number so enjoyable. It’s as if they both took the roles too seriously. Though both give entertaining performances, the stronger of the two is John Carter whose interpretation of Cinderella’s Prince is absolutely befitting, if not a tad too soft spoken (which is a shame as his smooth, deep timber is perfect for the stage!), and his take on The Wolf is spot on.

Scott AuCoin tackles the role of the Baker, the unlikely hero of the piece and Mia Coulborne takes on the character of Red Riding Hood, the bratty little girl who has no choice but to grow up throughout the story. Both actors are confident and committed to their roles and with characters being so intricate to the plot, both carry the responsibility nicely. Vocally, both give superb performances as in Red Ridinghood’s number “I Know Things Now” and the Baker’s “No More” and both seem to have an easy go with the material. Their chemistry with the rest of the ensemble is believable and they give 100% to their parts. Their interpretations of the characters could use a little kick as the performances were a bit scripted and forced but, overall, they give an admirable showing.

Rapunzel (played by Kirsti Dixon), the hapless girl stuck in a tower by her “mother”, who happens to be a Witch (portrayed by Rowena Winkler), are a good match to play these complex characters who play a big part in the plotline. Dixon shines with her beautiful soprano and gives an authentic portrayal as the young girl who knows there’s more out in the world than what she knows of her small tower. Winkler gives a completely dedicated, high energy performance as the Witch and her transition from Act I to Act II is more subtle than it should be both in character and presentation, but it works for the most part. Vocally, she has a better go with her higher register rather than the lower, but, overall, she gives a praiseworthy performance.

Some of the most humorous bits of this production come from Cinderella’s stepmother (Traci Denhardt), and the Stepsisters Florinda (Jamie Pasquinelli) and  Lucinda (Danyelle Spaar). This trio of actresses understand the importance of these characters but don’t take the roles so seriously that they’re not having fun. Pasquinelli and Spaar have a stupendous chemistry and play their characters to the hilt making for delightful performances. Denhardt as the stern Stepmother is poised and elegant, as the character requires and all three performances are on point. Along with this trio, Jessa Sahl takes on the role of Cinderlla’s Mother, a guiding ghost in a tree in the woods, and she gives a strong showing, especially vocally, with a clear voice that resonates throughout the theatre.

Jack is portrayed by Atticus Boidy and Jacks’ Mother, played by Temple Forston are a befitting duo with a great chemistry that makes for a charming mother/son relationship. Boidy has a good grasp of his character and gives an impressive vocal performance, shining in his featured number “Giants in the Sky” while Forston is believable as the stern but loving mother who only wants what’s best for her son. She makes the role her own and, though her character’s demise could have been tweaked out a bit more, she gives a commendable, strong performance.

The absolute highlights of this production of Into the Woods are Sydney Phipps taking on the role of Cinderella and Alana Simone who tackles the role of The Baker’s Wife. These two powerhouses are the ones to watch. Phipps effortlessly sings through Cinderella’s numbers such as her bit in the opening of Act I and her featured number “On the Steps of the Palace.” Also, her portrayal of Cinderella is authentic and because of Phipps splendid portrayal, you feel for this girl and are rooting for her. She has a good comprehension of the character, has a good presence on stage, and gives a strong, confident performance.

Likewise, Alana Simone starts off strong and keeps up the energy and consistency throughout the production. She has a booming voice and good chemistry with her fellow ensemble members, especially with Scott AuCoin, who plays her character’s husband. Simone belts out her numbers such as “It Takes Two” (with AuCoin), and the poignant “Moments in the Woods” with just the right amount of intensity and gentleness that is required of each number. Major kudos to Phipps and Simone for jobs very well done.

Final thought…Into the Woods is a monumental feat for any theatre, especially community theatres. Heritage Players certainly gives it the old college try and though some aspects fall short, others absolutely thrive. The show is long, by nature, and though this production has terrific pacing with an energetic cast, plan on sticking around for near three hours. Most of the cast is absolutely able and committed making for some great performances but as the production moves along, it seems to lose a little steam. That’s not to say it is not a commendable performance, because it most certainly is. With an ensemble who works well together, a simple but effective set, an orchestra that is on point, and a few standout performances, it’s definitely worth checking out this interpretation of a Stephen Sondheim favorite.

This is what I thought of Heritage Players production of Into the Woods… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Into the Woods will run through November 19 at Heritage Players in the Thomas-Rice Auditorium on the Spring Gove Hospital Campus, Catonsville, MD. For tickets, purchase them at the door or online.

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Review: Shrek the Musical at Dundalk Community Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with one 15-minute intermission

Lately, within the last few years, either fortunately or unfortunately, a plethora of “new” musicals to hit the scene have been based on Hollywood films. There have been some doozies such as Ghost or The Toxic Avenger and even Evil Dead the Musical (which I actually adore… hey, we all have our vices) but, with that said, some actually lend well to the stage such as Hairspray, The Bodyguard, Anastasia, Newsies, and the like and Dundalk Community Theatre’s latest offering, Shrek the Musical, based on the Dream Works Animation Motion picture and the book by William Steig, with Music by Jeanine Tesori and Book & Lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire Directed by John Desmone, with Music Direction by Nathan Christover Scavilla, and Choreography by Vincent Musgrave, is one of those that actually transfers nicely to the stage and fun for the entire family.

Gary Dieter, Dickie Mahoney, Sherry Benedek, and Peter N. Crews. Credit: DCT

In a nutshell, the story goes something like this: A bunch of fairy tale characters are banished from the town of Duloc by the Napoleon complex-ridden Lord Farquaad and they end up in the swamp that is already inhabited by a big green, solitary ogre, Shrek, and he wants nothing to do with any of it. To get them all off his claimed land, he goes to Duloc to try and reason with Lord Farquaad but along the way, Shrek meets and saves Donkey, a talking donkey, who is being chased by Lord Farquaad’s guards. Donkey takes a shine to Shrek and sticks to him like glue. Once in Duloc, Farquaad agrees to officially deed the land over to Shrek, but in return, sends Shrek on a mission, of sorts, to rescue Princess Fiona, who has been locked up in a tower for about 20 years, guarded by a fire-breathing dragon. Farquaad plans to marry Princess Fiona to rise in the ranks of monarchy and become a king. Shrek and Donkey succeed and escort Princess Fiona back to Duloc and along the way, something sparks between the princess and the Ogre, but Fiona is hiding a deep, dark secret and she wants to keep it that way. The princess is delivered to Lord Farquaad but, as in all good stories, there’s a twist that you’ll have to see, if you don’t know it already, that is.

Set Design by Marc W. Smith is simple, yet quite appropriate on this one. Being familiar with Smiths outstanding design work, he seems to have toned it down a bit for this production using backdrops and cutouts as opposed to his usual original complex and detailed design and construction. This isn’t to say the Set Design wasn’t amazing, because it was very polished with professional backdrops from Kenmark Scenic Backdrops that flew in and out with ease.

Dickie Mahoney, Peter N. Crews, and Gary Dieter. Credit: DCT

Costumes for a show like this can be challenging and downright difficult but Costume Design by Tracy Bird is spot on as all the fairy tale characters have appropriate wardrobes and each is easily distinguishable. Shrek, Donkey, Fiona, and Farquaad have near perfect wardrobes and each fairy tale character has his or her own unique look making for a vast and quite impressive Costume Design by Bird.

Vincent Musgrave hits the nail on the proverbial head with his choreography, especially for certain numbers such as “What’s Up Duloc?” and “Morning Person” and for as enthralling as these numbers were, dance-wise (and they were amazing… the ensemble members included in these numbers are on point!), it feels as though so much concentration was put into these couple of numbers that the others were a bit looser. Regardless, overall, the choreography is tight and the ensemble is dedicated and well-rehearsed giving 100% to each number.

Dickey Mahoney as Shrek and Sherry Benedek as Fiona. Credit: DCT

Musically, this production is top notch and Music Direction by Nathan Christopher Scavilla is absolutely on point. He already has an extremely able ensemble to work with so all the numbers were strong and confident. The pit orchestra is flawless in their efforts and though they are not listed in the program, I highly suggest an insert thrown in with all their names because this orchestra is well-rehearsed and polished, sounding like a CD playing or a professional Broadway theatre orchestra. Kudos to Scavilla for getting together such a great sounding orchestra and getting his cast to sound near perfect and in harmony in every number.

Baltimore theatre veteran John Desmone takes the helm of this production and his Direction stays true to the film almost everyone knows but still manages to put his mark on it and express his vision of acceptance, tolerance, and self discovery. Knowing a little bit of the history of Shrek the Musical in Baltimore theatre, I’m aware that the actors portraying Shrek and Donkey have a history playing the roles, opposite each other, in several other productions and it seems Desmone may have depended on that history a bit and left Shrek and Donkey to their own devices but it didn’t hinder the production value a lot. He tells the story in a well-cast, well-thought out production guiding this talented cast to a very entertaining and fun production.

Peter N. Crews as Lord Farquaad. Credit: DCT

Peter N. Crews takes on the role of Lord Farquaad, the small minded and statured villain of the story and, anyone who tackles this role has my applause and ovation because, physically, I couldn’t imagine spending an entire show crawling around on my knees. It may be easier than it looks, but, still… Crews has a good grasp of this character and gives an admirable performance but it falls a little flat. His portrayal seems a little more whiney than angry, though it could be a directorial choice. Vocally, Crews is OK and holds his own in numbers such as “What’s Up Duloc?” and “Ballad of Farquaad.” Overall, he gives a confident performance and, like I said, anyone who takes on this crazy role has my kudos for his bravery and physical prowess.

Gary Dieter as Donkey. Credit: DCT

Gary Dieter tackles the challenging role of the chatty, expert one-liner, loyal friend Donkey, who doesn’t leave Shrek’s side once they meet. Dieter is a terrific showman and absolutely makes this role his own and doesn’t give a carbon copy of the uber-successful portrayal Eddie Murphy gave in the film and he has my utmost respect and admiration for that aspect of his portrayal. He understands his audience and the audience loves him. However, though his asides and ad libs had the audiences eating out of his hands, I would have preferred he pulled it back a bit as it seems he’s trying too hard for the laugh. Again, the audience adores him and he had them laughing in the isles so, maybe it’s just me. Dieter is an accomplished dancer, but in this role dancing isn’t really showcased and his vocals are commendable in his featured numbers “Don’t Let Me Go” and the soulful “Make a Move,” in which he is accompanied by the titillating 3 Blind Mice (beautifully played by Lacy Comstock, Emily Morgan, and Sydney Phipps). Overall, his comprehension of the story and his character is apparent and he has a great command of the stage making for a strong, confident performance.

Dickie Mahoney as Shrek. Credit: DCT

Taking on the titular character of Shrek, Dickie Mahoney hits the ground running with this role. As stated before, Mahoney has a history with this character and he’s comfortable and confident in his portrayal. He gives us a brilliant portrayal but, at times, it seems he is going through the motions, but after performing the role so many times, it’s somewhat understandable and the audience, en masse, doesn’t seem to mind. He, too, makes the part his own and does not give us a copy of the Mike Meyers portrayal of the big green ogre and it’s refreshing to see. Vocally, Mahoney has a commanding smooth, clear voice that resonates throughout the theatre making the songs like “Bright Big Beautiful World,” “I Think I Got You Beat,” and the poignant “When Words Fail” sound effortless. He does utilize the Irish/Welsh/Scottish accent always associated with this character and he does lose it slightly every now and again, but all things considered, he’s got it down pat. Overall, Mahoney gives a praiseworthy performance that is filled with heart and dedication that is a joy to watch.

Two standouts in this production are Sherry Benedeck as Princess Fiona and Lisa Pastella as the Voice of Dragon who belt their way through songs and take command of not only the stage, but of the entire theatre.

Sherry Benedek as Fiona. Credit: DCT

Sherry Benedek as Princess Fiona is a powerhouse. She’s a triple threat, taking the role and putting her own twist on it, making it original and vocally, she is a powerhouse. I found myself absolutely enthralled in her singing in numbers such as “I Know It’s Today” (with the younger Fionas, Juliet Jones and Anna Adelstein, who both hold their own and blend nicely with Benedek) and “Morning Song” in which she gets a chance to show us her brilliant dancing/tapping abilities. Benedek is a joy to watch and I’m looking forward to seeing more from this actress.

Dragon, though a puppet, needs a heart and soul and Lisa Pastella gives her just that. We don’t see Pastella (except when she’s scurrying around as The Wicket Witch with the ensemble), but with her featured number, the soulful, heartfelt “Forever,” I didn’t need to see her because he voice did it for me. Vocally, she is crystal clear, smooth, and hits every note flawlessly making for an exciting and powerful performance.

Gingy and Lord Farquaad. Credit: DCT

The entire ensemble works well together and seem to be having a great time up on the stage together. Featured characters like the fed up activist, Pinocchio (Josh Schoff), The Big Bad Wolf in drag (Mark Lloyd), The Three Bears (Stacey Bonds, Vincent Musgrave, Sarah Jones) and, who could forget poor wounded/cracked Gingy (Veronica Lockett) round out the cast nicely and the actors bring an updated feel and humor to them, as required by the story. All around, the entire cast of this show deserves kudos for their dedication and effort for their outstanding chemistry and giving 100% to this production.

Final thought… Shrek: The Musical at Dundalk Community Theatre is a family friendly romp peppered slyly with a few adult-oriented jokes to keep it interesting, with fabulous voices, exciting choreography, colorful and fun costumes, and a stage full of familiar and new fairy tale characters that will keep you entertained and engaged throughout the evening. Beyond the great production value, the important message of this piece, which is acceptance, not only of others, but of yourself, is what you should take home. The performances are strong and confident and the entire ensemble works quite well together making for a charming, enjoyable, and toe-tapping evening of theatre that should not be missed!

This is what I thought of Dundalk Community Theatre’s production of Shrek the Musical… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Shrek the Musical will play through May 7 at Dundalk Community Theatre, The Ravekes Theatre, CCBC Dundalk, 7200 Sollers Point Road, Dundalk, MD. For Tickets, call the box office at 443-840-2787 or purchase them online.

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