Monday, June 21, 2010

The uses of entertainment

Cinderella (McCaela Donovan) ventures "into the woods."

I suppose Into the Woods isn't quite top-drawer Sondheim; that is, it's not in the magic circle of Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, and Sweeney Todd. It's slightly less virtuosic, slightly less ground-breaking.

But it's also produced more often than the "Big Four" - I think we've seen three different productions in the last few years here in Boston, in fact. Why? Perhaps because it's not too challenging, and not too dark - like Goldilocks's porridge (to borrow a fairy-tale metaphor), in terms of challenge, it's just right. Plus it's studded with some of the master's loveliest melodies, including "No One is Alone" and "Children Will Listen," as well as the happy, mindless march that powers the title tune.

So I was happy to welcome yet another Into the Woods into the woods around Waltham - and happier still to find the recently re-christened "Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston" (I think we'll shorten that to "Reagle Music Theatre") has mounted a moving and sophisticated (if not flawless) version. It's powered by two knock-out performances, from Broadway vet Rachel York (below left, as the Witch) and relative-newcomer McCaela Donovan (above, as Cinderella), and boasts a nearly-as-strong supporting cast. At the same time, the company seems to have made a jump in its production values, too: the set, by Janie Howland, is more sophisticated and conceptual than was typical for the glitzy, but literal-minded "Reagle Players" (although the design has a few problems, more on that later), and the orchestra, led by musical director Charles Peltz, sounded much cleaner and more cohesive than it has in times past; in fact, in one leap, Reagle has landed in the landscape of a typical SpeakEasy, Lyric, or New Rep musical.

Okay, back to the show itself. Just in case you're a Sondheim virgin, Into the Woods was inspired by Bruno Bettelheim's 1976 blockbuster The Uses of Enchantment, which analyzed the tales of the Brothers Grimm in terms of child psychology - in a word, how the stories allowed kids to grapple with subconscious desires and fears at one remove. With librettist James Lapine, Sondheim set about producing a similar set of fairy tales for grown-ups, in which adult issues could be dealt with via a similar code.

Just after the success of Into the Woods, of course, Bettelheim committed suicide, and soon his reputation endured blow after blow. Still, the common-sense basis of The Uses of Enchantment remains a cultural touchstone, perhaps due in no small part to Sondheim - and the way he and Lapine wittily extended the fairy tale into a more complex moral universe. In their show's first half, four famous stories (Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Little Red Riding Hood) are braided together via the device of the Baker and his Wife, who are seeking talismans to lift a curse of sterility visited on them by a wicked Witch. All the figures of the various stories intersect and interact in those eponymous "woods" - a metaphorical site of fear and desire, of moral uncertainty and fraught encounter, in which circumstances and even identity are constantly shifting.

The twist in Into the Woods is that once these fairy tales are "finished" - and everyone has achieved their wish - the story goes on: all that self-actualization has resulted in a new catastrophe, in which a vengeful giantess (widely interpreted as a personification of the AIDS crisis) appears to mow down the population. Thus as it makes the leap from the 70's to the 80's, Into the Woods likewise limns the transition from adolescence to maturity, and from individual to community - and of course, the awareness of the multiple moral perspectives that transition entails.

If that sounds like a lot to swallow in an evening's entertainment, rest assured that Sondheim and Lapine make the morals go down easy. I'm sure plenty of people have enjoyed Into the Woods without pondering any of this. What's memorable about the Reagle version, however, is how it subtly grows in scale and power as it proceeds: by the finale, largely thanks to McCaela Donovan's delicately devastating version of "No One is Alone," I confess my heart was in my throat - right where Sondheim and Lapine intended it to be.

Prior to that, there were a few bumps on the path to grandmother's house. The first act of Woods is famously intricate, with a book that starts and stops repeatedly as librettist Lapine weaves together his separate tales with Sondheim's many songs. At Reagle, at least on opening weekend, all this didn't quite cohere - subtle gaps and beats kept slowing things down, and at the same time the advance of the "First" and "Second" Midnights didn't quite register. The set - a striking statement in which trees would descend onto the pages of an open book - didn't seem to help things; several actors tripped over its steps, and it seemed to subtly frustrate director Stacey Stephens's attempts at flow. Still, in the more simply-structured second act, things improved, and the assembled ensemble shown all the brighter.

Chief among these many lights was Rachel York, a Broadway vet (and Reagle regular) without a real peer in Boston in terms of musical theatre ability. She won the IRNE for last summer's Hello, Dolly!, and something tells me she'll be back in contention next spring for her work here; her Witch is both hilariously broad and yet - amazingly - deeply touching; her rendition of "Stay with Me" was the most wrenching I've ever heard, in fact. Damn, this gal has chops.

The surviving - I mean supporting - cast of this grim fairy tale - Gregory Isaac Stone, McCaela Donovan, Doug Jabara and Allison Russell.

Barely a step behind York, however - despite those glass slippers - was local star McCaela Donovan as Cinderella. Donovan recently impressed as Yum-Yum in the New Rep's Hot Mikado, and she carried on - after a slightly-subdued start - at the same high level here; as noted, I'll never forget her take on "No One is Alone;" with any justice, it would become the standard version.

The supporting cast likewise glittered - I particularly savored the subtle acting and rich singing voices of Shannon Lee Jones and Doug Jabara as the Baker and his Wife, as well as Allison Russell's satisfied sense of happy appetite as the obnoxious Little Red Riding Hood. Alas, Ayal Miodovnik was somewhat hampered as the Big Bad Wolf by a cumbersome mask, but he was a lot of fun as the fatuously swaggering Prince, and newcomers Gregory Isaac Stone and Brennan Roach impressed as Jack and Rapunzel's Prince, respectively.

There were a few gaps in the ensemble - Catherine Lee Christie contributed a fine singing voice but not much more as Jack's mother, and in the part of the Narrator, local TV personality Scott Wahle came off as - well, a local TV personality (his costume of anchorman-suit-and-tie didn't help things); to be fair, Wahle was better, but hardly outstanding, as the script's "mysterious old man."

These missteps were forgotten, however, amid the production's many pleasures. In fact, I'd say the other theatres in town should watch their backs; as I predicted last summer, Reagle seems to see an opening for a jump from a "merely" community-based theatre into a full-fledged regional presence, and with Into the Woods, they're putting their best foot forward.