June 4, 2013
With all the sincere praise of Redwood Symphony's Sweeney Todd and the rare pleasure of hearing Stephen Sondheim's orchestral music upfront and close, something else was going on last weekend — and continues through this month — where an eight-piece unamplified band's performance delighted just as much, in a different way.
Ray of Light's production of Into the Woods is a big show on Eureka Theatre's tiny stage, with more than a dozen principal characters in continuous motion, maintaining diction and projection to convey every word of Sondheim's terrific lyrics clearly. Kudos to Artistic Director Jason Hoover, Stage Director Eliza Leoni, Costume Designer Miriam Lewis, and Choreographer Lauren Rosi.
Rather than Redwood Symphony's 50-piece orchestra, the Ray of Light production is supported by eight young musicians, squeezed into the space where the wings should be (but aren't), with each instrument substituting for an entire section.
Under the direction of David Möschler, who conducts from the piano, they handle Sondheim's complex, difficult score with distinction. Violinist Lucas Gayda is outstanding as the one-man violin section, Christina Lesicko does the same for the viola, Amy Nashimoto for the cello, Travis Kindred on the double bass, Audrey Jackson on woodwinds, and David Campbell on brass instruments. The percussion section is Lily Kaye Sevier all by her lonesome.
No body mikes for the singers, just low-level "sound enhancement" from a few floor mikes. The sound seems real and actually coming from where each singer is — no disembodied, homogenized amplification that's unfortunately the rule for musicals, regardless of the size of the venue.
Sondheim's 1986 fractured fairytale of a great musical has giants, princes, an insatiable wolf, an invisible dwarf, a bipolar witch — for starters.
It mixes such Brothers Grimm stories as Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Jack and the Beanstalk; turns them inside out, and shines a light on their deep psychological meaning.
Stage and musical direction allow the two princes (David Naughton and Ted Zoldan) to cut up in their showstopper duet, "Agony," but keep the second act's lyrical songs ( "No One Is Alone," "Children Will Listen") quiet and restrained. On opening night, the reprise of "Agony," with its changed lyrics, as the now-married royalty lust after other enchanted princesses, wasn't clear enough to make the impact it should.
The musical's focus is on the Baker and the Baker's Wife (their only identification). Their quest to reverse the Witch's curse that prevents them from having a child intersects with all other characters. Both Austin Ferris and Marisa Cozart carry the long roles exceptionally well; his singing matches the fine acting, hers needs more projection.
Allison Meneley's Little Red is the dynamo of the show, with a voice shaking the rafters, and hilarious mugging that captivates not only the Wolf (John Flaw) but the audience, as well. Michelle Jasso exhibits an operatic voice as the Witch, and a stunning transformation as she regains her youth, looking bewitching, but now without her witchly powers.
Courtney Merrell's Cinderella, Derek Travis Collard's Narrator/Mysterious Man, and Melissa Reinertson's Rapunzel pace the ensemble.
Kyle Stoner is outstanding as Jack, the young man devoted to his cow, having his heart broken when forced to trade her for magic beans which, in turn, lead him to dangerous adventures with the giants at the top of his beanstalk.
Nancy Sale is marvelous as Jack's mother, Nikki Arias is a riot as Cinderella's mean stepmother, and Angela Jarosz plays two very different characters as Cinderella's saintly mother and Little Red's feisty grandmother.
After taking in the Ray of Light production, you will have to wait another year before the Disney film version comes to your neighborhood theater. It's very promising: Rob Marshall directs, the screenplay is by the writer of the original book, James Lapine. Meryl Streep is cast as the Witch, Johnny Depp as the Wolf, James Corden as the Baker, other casting is still in progress.
Emily Blunt is apparently cast as the Baker's Wife, Chris Pine and Jake Gyllenhaal may play the princes. My nomination for Little Red: Allison Meneley.