Matthew Reddin
Fairy tales revisited

Into the Woods at Off the Wall Theatre

By - Jul 24th, 2010 01:55 pm
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Photos courtesy of Off the Wall Theatre

Off the Wall’s production of Into the Woods was by no means “ordinary.” With director and owner Dale Gutzman at the helm, this incarnation of the Sondheim play was designed to be something special.

And it most certainly is.

Into the Woods begins as a fairy tale that combines the stories of Cinderella (Jacqueline Roush), Jack and the Beanstalk (Patrick McGuire), and Little Red Riding Hood (Liz Mistele) framed within the story of a baker and his wife (Christopher Elst and Sharon Rise) who trying to lift a curse which keeps them from bearing children.

This tale encompasses the first act, but the second act is a story all on its own. As intermission recedes, the unforeseen consequences of the first act (namely, one angry, widowed “lady giant”) fall upon them with tragic results, forcing them to consider the adage “be careful what you wish for.”

Even if you’ve seen Into the Woods elsewhere, Off the Wall isn’t telling exactly the same story; the horns and traffic sounds that blare as the show opens make that perfectly clear. Gutzman’s modernized the setting, the medieval village transformed into an urban jungle. Broken cinema signs hang ominously over the baker’s shop and skyscrapers rise off into the distance.

This urban shift colors the garb and actions of the play’s characters. Jack rolls on stage on a skateboard and spends the majority of the play in a Fall Out Boy t-shirt. The Witch (Marilyn White) starts as a bag lady and later transforms into a high-powered executive. The over-sexualized Wolf (Eric Nelson) that encounters Red in the woods is the very image of a “bad boy,” clad in ragged jeans, a leather jacket, and (brilliantly) a “Team Jacob” t-shirt, while the princes (Doug Clemons and Nelson) are the preppiest of the preps — blazers, pastel sweaters and all.

The show-stealing Narrator (Jeremy C. Welter) takes this modern angle to its furthest, sliding onto the stage on a bicycle and reading the story of Little Red Riding Hood from a children’s book while Red herself plays out the well-known story.

Eric Nelson as “The Wolf”

In addition to his excellent work as Narrator, Welter has a few extra roles to play. Traditionally, the Narrator plays the part of the Mysterious Man, but in this production, he’s been cast as Red’s Grandmother as well as Cinderella’s Mother and Stepmother, adding a twist to these roles with ridiculously facetious wigs and voices. It’s a brilliant touch that adds to the Narrator’s already-tongue-in-cheek role, Welter overplaying his parts with enthusiasm and irony by the ton.
The rest of the cast is just as exemplary. McGuire’s Jack begins almost inconceivably earnest, but as the play progresses, he matures line by line. It’s a development best epitomized when he learns of his mother’s death in Act II, his face slowly sagging with this tragic realization, and pulling your heartstrings along with it.

And then there’s Mistele as Red, starting the play as jarring, annoying and slightly manic, but growing on you slowly, like a lovable red-caped parasite.

One of the play’s few problems is in the vocals. The members of the core cast are strong throughout, with McGuire and Roush clearly at the top of the heap, but some of the auxiliary cast members can’t quite get every note.

But the acting and charisma makes up for it in spades. You don’t care that the Baker can easily out-sing his wife in “It Takes Two” because it’s just so adorable to see the couple falling in love again, and while the Witch can’t always keep up with Sondheim’s score, her brazen character dares you to say a word about it.

Into the Woods isn’t supposed to be a play about happy endings. It’s about being happy until the end. And that’s certainly the experience you get watching it—happy all the way through, until it’s finished and you’re left wishing for more.

Into the Woods runs through August 8 at the Off the Wall Theatre, 127 E. Wells St. Running time is 140 minutes plus a 12 minute intermission. Reserved seating is $27.50 and general admission is $23.50 and can be purchased online at offthewalltheatre.com or at 414-327-3552.

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