Out on a Limb

Jun 16, 1999 at 4:00 am
Into the Woods
By Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine
New Line Theatre

Things grow dark when you go into the woods. That's where Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine take the characters from familiar folktales in their musical Into the Woods. Not that these tales didn't already have their shady spots. Cinderella, Jack and his beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel -- their stories already feature sadism, disfigurement, starvation, imprisonment and a variety of violent deaths. But the stories all end happily -- at least for the central characters.

Sondheim and Lapine take these tales thought fit for children and turn them into a musical for adults. They highlight their grim moments and moral ambiguities. They cleverly weave the stories together and add one about a childless baker and his wife. They then take these people past the momentary happiness of their stories' endings and into the lives that have to be lived, day after day, forever after. Above all, Sondheim tells the tales in lyrics of delicious wit that keep you in breathless suspense as his rhymes spin dizzily on and on, set to music that grows brighter and fresher with each hearing.

You can savor those words and music in what may be New Line Theatre's finest production yet. You do miss some of the aphorisms that the cast recites as they march about the St. Marcus Theatre in one of the gestures toward environmental staging made by directors Scott Miller and Alison Helmer. But mostly the players stay on the stage and speak and sing with welcome clarity. The small instrumental ensemble -- a richly varied blend of piano, trumpet, flute and percussion -- supports them without overwhelming them.

The cast plays with smart assurance, without a weak link in the chain. Some actors give more depth and breadth to their characters than others, in part because the parts are written that way. Deborah Sharn plunges us deep into the moral struggles of the Baker's Wife, the play's most complex role. Sarah Laak traces a similar growth in Cinderella and, like Sharn, has a lovely singing voice. As another character who suffers change, Laura Beard Aeling rips and roars with relish as the vengeful Witch, but she lacks conviction when the Witch loses her powers and suffers real human loss. Kate Novak makes the precocious Little Red Riding Hood a delightfully wry coquette, and Karl E. Berberich matches her as the lascivious Wolf. After the Wolf gets his, Berberich earns more laughs playing a mock-heroic prince.

The multitalented Berberich also designed the production's atmospheric woods. Peter Gilchrist conquers the cramped St. Marcus to light the sprawling show. The costumes of Theresa Doggett and Tim Kent, rich in pattern and texture, look appropriately like adult versions of fairy-tale illustrations.

The whole production turns these old tales into adult versions rich in wit, music and emotion -- the most satisfying kind of entertainment.

-- Bob Wilcox

Joshua's Boots
By Adolphus C. Hailstork and Susan Kander
Opera Theatre of St. Louis

Joshua's Boots, Opera Theatre of St. Louis' 1999 opera for young people, which opened last Friday at the Center of Contemporary Arts in University City, is a thoroughly enjoyable, exciting and touching piece. Its plot moves quickly through the months it takes Joshua (baritone Jermaine Smith), a 16-year-old African-American, to leave his home and family in rural Tennessee one step ahead of a lynch mob and flee to Kansas. Along the way he meets up with Natty Green (baritone Dennis Shaw). When they get to Dodge City, Natty joins the cavalry, but Joshua, with the help of Cookie (high baritone Patrick Nigh), is hired as a wrangler, the man on a cattle drive responsible for the horses the cowboys ride. Unfortunately, the trail boss, Frederick (tenor Jesse Lawder), is terribly prejudiced and persecutes Joshua until he is injured in a stampede and Joshua saves his life. When the drive is over, Frederick thanks Joshua and, prodded by his sister Lucinda (soprano Rebecca Schaaf) and Cookie, gives him five calves so Joshua can begin raising a herd of his own. He also hires Joshua as a full-fledged cowboy and sends him to town to buy a good pair of boots. It ends in general rejoicing, as any good cowboy story ought.

Save for Smith, Nigh and Siphiwe McKenzie (who sings the parts of Joshua's mother and Sally Fingers, the rowdy but kindhearted saloonkeeper in Dodge City), the cast is composed entirely of young women and men from area schools and (in a couple of cases) universities. Especially impressive are tenors Lawder and Joe Mosier, baritones Shaw and David Koch, and sopranos Schaaf and Johanna Elkana. Lawder has a lot to sing, including a difficult solo, but neither the sweetness nor the power of his voice ever falters. Smith makes an entirely credible 16-year-old Joshua, and his strong voice consistently embodies the optimism and resilience of a young man. The ensemble work, particularly in a quartet by Smith, McKenzie, Nigh and Jamilla Upchurch, is fine music musically sung, and the chorus is superb throughout.

Stage director Ron Himes, founder and producing director of the St. Louis Black Repertory Company, keeps the stage lively and interesting. He is especially impressive in staging Joshua's riding test and the stampede. The music for both scenes is vivid, and Himes' use of his singer/actors to convey action they see but we don't is remarkable.

Conductor Stephen Mager, leading members of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, is sympathetic both toward his singers and toward Hailstork's score. Jim Burwinkel's set, Robin VerHage-Abrams' costumes and John G. Wylie's lighting are all first-rate. Millie Garvey's choreography, complete with high-kicking saloon girls, is delightful.

Joshua's Boots will receive two more performances this weekend, and it is really worth a trip, even if you're no longer a young person.

-- Harry Weber

Nunsense II: The Second Coming
By Dan Goggin
Goldenrod Showboat

Those who find risible the idea of nuns in traditional habits singing, dancing and cracking bad jokes can laugh the night away on the Goldenrod Showboat these days, where the second of Dan Goggin's bewilderingly successful scenarios for the five Little Sisters of Hoboken occupies the stage. I like bad jokes more than most, but I'm bemused by the proliferation and repetition of these trifles, which long ago succumbed to the law of diminishing returns for me.

But the current cast plays the material with skill and relish, sharply defining each sister. Susan Filtrante presides firmly as the mother superior, with Paula Scarbrough archly second-guessing her as her lieutenant. As Sister Robert-Anne from the mean streets of Brooklyn, Stephanie Tennill strides about in red high-top sneakers, and Katie Nestor makes a winsome novice. Marian L. Holtz has played Sister Amnesia so often, she could probably do it in her sleep. But sleep you probably won't, though groan you may, at Nunsense II.

-- Bob Wilcox