Believe in Stephen

The hills are alive with the sounds of Sondheim.

Thirty miles west of Columbia in bucolic Arrow Rock, where the corn is not yet quite as high as an elephant's eye (though it's getting there), the Lyceum Theatre has opened its summer season with a handsome staging of Into the Woods. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's skewed adaptation of Grimm Brothers' fairy tales leaves the stage piled high with more bodies than Hamlet. Yet it's Will Rogers, not Shakespeare, who invokes comparison here. To paraphrase Rogers, I've never seen a production of Into the Woods I didn't like.

Of late there have been numerous versions to see — professional, amateur, student. Everyone seems drawn to this delightfully provocative fable about good and evil, and the need for all of us to seek a safe haven that exists somewhere between nightmares and dreams. The felicitous Arrow Rock production has been staged by director Quin Gresham and choreographer Daryl D. Vaughan, who are able to move the action at a brisk pace, then slow it down at pivotal moments so the audience can keep up with some of Sondheim's more labyrinthine lyrics.

How gratifying it is to encounter Sandie Rosa, who was so memorable last fall as Little Sally in the Off Ramp Urinetown. Here she's great fun as that knife-wielding spitfire Little Red Ridinghood. John Flack, who recently gave a mesmerizing performance in Muddy Waters' After the Fall, makes for a breezy Narrator (though I would have preferred to see him in more contemporary garb).

Sondheim's Into the Woods is always a delight.
Sondheim's Into the Woods is always a delight.

But it's Ben Nordstrom, another Urinetown alum, who justifies the drive west. Nordstrom plays the Baker, who's trying to lift a witch's spell so his wife (Leslie Lorusso) can conceive a child. Much of Act One is taken up with their impromptu scavenger hunt for unusual ingredients, and that's all diverting enough. But it's in Act Two, when a local giant wreaks revenge for her husband's death, that the musical reveals its conscience and soul, both of which are personified in Nordstrom. As the Baker is ever more beaten down by unhappy circumstances, Nordstrom finds the bewildered humanity in his fairy-tale character. His guileless rendition of the resonant "No More" ("Can't we just pursue our lives/With our children and our wives?") is the evening's most affecting moment.

Not that everything works here. But then, some of this show's moments don't work, ever. Once again the sequence in which the Witch (Tina Marie Casamento) reverts to human form falls flat — as it always does. Apparently no one, including the show's original creators, knows how to render this transfiguring effect. But despite a glitch here and there, the evening builds from clever deconstruction to somber reflection. What begins as a family fairy tale ends by asking penetrating questions about the complex relationships between parents and children.

Once again the Lyceum has delivered a winner. The sheer professionalism of this oasis-like theater out in the middle of nowhere is a kind of fairy tale unto itself.


While we're on the subject of Sondheim, a few follow-up words about the current Stages St. Louis production of A Little Night Musicare in order. Into the Woodsis Sondheim's most oft-staged musical, but Night Musicsightings are few and far between. Perhaps viewers fear that a story about the follies of love among the upper crust on a Swedish country estate, complete with an ensemble of lieder singers, might be too erudite. If it's a sin to instill a musical with wit, intelligence and sophistication, then Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, who wrote the hilariously adult script, will rot in Hell. But the Stages production is just this side of heavenly.

How rare it is to see a show in which all the design elements — the immaculate scenery by James Wolk, elegant costumes by Dorothy Marshall Englis, lush lighting by Matthew McCarthy — blend so smoothly with the performances to create an aura of ineffable loveliness. Even the prerecorded music score — which in other Stages productions I have been quick to criticize — adds to the smooth and polished veneer.

In my capsule review last week, I singled out Kari Ely, whose pitch-perfect portrayal of stage star Desiree Armfeldt sets the evening's rueful tone. But just about everyone contributes to the ultimate impact. I also was impressed by Alexis L. Kinney, who plays Desiree's thirteen-year-old daughter. Fredrika can become an intrusion on the more adult proceedings; here she is our guide and at times even our eyes. Brian Ogilvie, who portrays the brooding young cello player secretly in love with his frivolous stepmother, rises to the challenge of playing a boorish character without boring the audience.

Then there is Julie Foldesi as Petra, the fun-loving maid. Late in Act Two, Petra sings "The Miller's Son," a sly confidence that suggests she's brighter — and far more pragmatic — than the fools for whom she works. The trouble is that too often the bravura "Miller's Son" becomes an appendage that brings the action to a halt. As sung by Foldesi, the song is integral to the evening's crescendo. She steers us to the finale. By the time that finale arrives, a viewer has been treated to a fully realized production of a nigh-flawless romantic musical comedy.

 
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