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Seeing the forest AND the trees

By Brett Campbell
October 6, 2014

The forest gets mighty crowded in Into the Woods, what with Cinderella and her evil sisters and mom, and Prince Charming, Rapunzel and her witchy momma, Jack the Beanstalker, his mom, and his beloved bovine, oh and not to forget Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, and assorted compatriots, plus an ultimately unfortunate narrator who gets pulled into the action … all Grimmly scurrying around chasing magical objects, dodging giants, cooperating, disputing, teaming up, splitting up and finally arriving at a kind of hard-won wisdom amid the Shakespearean sylvan chaos.

The tiny stage at Beaverton City Library auditorium got pretty crowded, too, at Beaverton Civic Theatre’s sold-out opening night performance of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1986 fractured musical fairy tale. But like the densely packed, tightly tangled storylines, which eventually resolve into a powerful (if occasionally a bit preachy) parable, BCT artistic director Melissa Riley somehow not only kept everyone out of each other’s way, but also brought a welcome intimacy to the busy proceedings. Ingeniously employing not only every centimeter of the constrained stage but also the aisles, Riley’s clever blocking, frequent humorous touches (often playing on the low budget nature of the production), and well rehearsed 19-member cast made this energetic production feel cozy and compelling rather than cluttered. A more elaborate production runs one more weekend at Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival, but maybe this show’s lack of space, props (a painted backdrop, deliberately fake birds and cow, and Rapunzel’s tower are about it) and the rest helps it avoid missing the forest for the trees.

Familiar fairy tale figures populate Beaverton Civic Theatre's Into the Woods.

Familiar fairy tale figures populate Beaverton Civic Theatre’s Into the Woods. Photo: Ammon Riley.

Lapine uses the Grimm Brothers’ familiar characters, as well as a childless, conflicted baker and his wife of his own devising, to show what happens when our own complex needs, desires and fears prevent us from finding the happy endings seemingly offered by the watered-down, latter-day versions of what were originally much less soothing and more complicated folk tales. Following a first act overstuffed with a few ultimately inconsequential story lines,the darker second act confronts the mythical denizens of the forested kingdom with a threat that initially makes them turn on each other, as dramatized in the finger-pointing song “Your Fault.” Conflicts arise between parents and children, between villagers and royals, and the characters confront difficult truths uttered by the most honest (and, consequently, least congenial) character, a witch. Played by Bernadette Peters in the original Broadway production, and by Meryl Streep in the Disney movie opening in December, here she’s deliciously portrayed by an acerbic Beth Noelle, who tautens the mood every time she seizes the stage.

The fairy tale trappings could easily overshadow Into the Woods’s contemporary ambiguities, but most of the cast, especially Noelle (who displays fine comic timing), Essie Bertain as Cinderella and Amelia Morgan-Rothschild as the baker’s wife, subtly use nuanced expressions, inflections and gestures to convey complex (sometimes even contradictory) emotional undercurrents beneath their literal words and actions, much as Sondheim’s shaded melodies do.

Amelia Morgan-Rothschild and Jake Beaver as Baker's Wife and Baker.

Amelia Morgan-Rothschild and Jake Beaver as Baker’s Wife and Baker. Photo: Ammon Riley.

Along with the elder Noelle (her teenaged daughter Olivia winningly plays Red Riding Hood), BCT’s production is powered by pulsating performances by Morgan-Rothschild and Jake Beaver as her husband, who eventually emerges from the first-act crowd to become the protagonist. His supple singing and stage presence give the sometimes convoluted story a needed central pillar. Beaver and the electrifying Max Artsis, who steals the show each time he appears as either the big bad wolf or Prince Charming (Lapine’s not-so-subtle suggestion that the latter’s charm masks lycanthropic appetites) boast the cast’s biggest and best singing voices.

Their power was needed to overcome first-act overamplification of the mostly pre-recorded synthesized score that sometimes covered lines and Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics. The three instrumental soloists did their best, but the absence of a full ensemble was the only aspect of this well-crafted production that couldn’t vanquish its cramped venue. Thankfully, the piped-in volume decreased after intermission. Singing the 84-year-old music theater eminence’s dense, rhythmically precise lyrics expressively can pose a tough challenge that almost everyone involved surmounts with seeming effortlessness is testament to the professionalism everywhere evident in this snappy show.

The lesser roles occasionally suffered from weaker acting, singing and/or characterization, but offered many more moments of delight, many supplied by Cinderella’s evil sisters, devilishly played by Brandee EP Leibrand and Erin Zelazny. Kraig Williams does a lot with the underwritten role of Rapunzel’s Prince, as do Kymberli Colbourne as Jack’s mother, Aaron Morrow as the supercilious Steward, and others.

Although the brisk, ironic tone prevents the story from wilting under the weight of its knotty plot and moral message, by the time we reach Sondheim’s climactic paean to communitarianism, “No One is Alone,” one of his most moving creations, we genuinely care about these storybook archetypes. BCT’S smart, sympathetic production engagingly overcomes its cramped quarters to pack a surprisingly bountiful evening of theater into such a compact setting. Even for a small, relatively young (founded 2009) company in a tight squeeze like this one, imaginative theater knows no bounds.

Beaverton Civic Theatre’s Into the Woods continues through October 18 at Beaverton City Library.

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