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Review: Into the Woods

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Big musical fits nicely into a small stage

In the run-up to a big budget, all-star film of Into the Woods, scheduled for the holidays, the 1986 Sondheim musical has been seeing a flurry of renewed interest. This has led, more or less, to the first production in the Czech Republic.

Into the Woods
When: Nov. 16, 23, 30 at 3 p.m.; Nov. 15, 21, 22 at 7 p.m.
Dec. 28 at 3 p.m.; Dec. 1, 4, 26, 27, 28 at 7 p.m.
Where: Divadlo Kolowrat
www.pragueshakespeare.com

In a break from works either by or inspired by the Bard of Avon, the Prague Shakespeare Company is producing Into the Woods in the rather intimate setting of the Kolowrat Theater. Director Steve Josephson takes the attic-like space and uses it as just that, strewing it with stray toys that time has not been kind to. This allows the narrator, played ably by Brian Caspe on the opening night, to wander up into the attic using the same stairs as the audience, and seem like a bit like latecomer before claiming the space as his own actual attic with his forgotten toys and storybooks.

Two featured actresses alternate in the roles of the witches, and both have extensive experience singing in Czech. Michaela Horká has been in numerous Czech musicals and TV series. She gave a strong opening night performance, which was heightened by her transformation from a particularly ugly and very Central European looking witch into a more glamorous incarnation of her character partway through. Several aspects of the witch, from the ragged costume made of torn strips of cloth to the particular type of broom seemed to be a very Czech interpretation. She looked like a full-size version of the witch marionettes one can see sold to tourists.

The alternate for the Witch, Vendula Přihodová, gave a brief demonstration of the role at a press preview, and also seemed to have it well in hand. She is perhaps more typical for the role, with naturally darker hair and complexion. Přihodová shot to fame as a singing contestant on a TV reality show.

What was more surprising was how well the stock members of the PSC could sing, as usually they are seen in straight drama with perhaps a few comic lines of song thrown in. One exception is Fools for Love, a production based on Shakespeare’s sonnets, but only two PSC members sing in that.

Because the space for Into the Woods is small, the director opted not to use microphones. The actors really have to sing and not just fake it enough so a sound person can fix it at mixing board. The actual microphones on the actors also tend to be very distracting, clashing with period costumes. Not having them was a good call. The audience could really feel it was a live musical.

Standing out in particular is Jay DeYonker as Jack, the boy who trades a cow for magic beans. His role called for a lot of emotive singing and quite some range. He managed to deliver an unexpected level of intensity at crucial moments, as well as bring a bumbling but lovable appeal to his acting.

The two princes in the story also scored. Josef Guruncz, who sings in Fools for Love, was Rapunzel’s Prince. Milan Malinovsky plays Prince Charming. The two have a good rapport on the stage, playing up a bit of rivalry and making the most of their elegant princely attire.

The director appears in the key role of the Baker. Being director and actor simultaneously can be tricky, but Josephson didn’t overplay his role and blended in with the rest of the cast. He also had good interaction with Elissa Levitt, who played the Baker’s Wife. The two managed some heartfelt moments as they try to undo a curse and learn to rely on each other in tough circumstances.

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Bree Welch, who was almost unrecognizable as a vulgar peasant in The Murder of Gonzago, brought a sense of both naivety and vanity to Little Red Riding Hood. Jessica Boone, who is in Fools for Love as well as Venus in Fur, was a natural to cast as Cinderella. The role has its moments, such as when Cinderella seeks advice from her mother’s spirit, but is not as meaty and substantial as some of the other characters. In the end one wishes Cinderella had more to do.

Trying to put a production meant for a big Broadway stage into a small space is a bit of a trick. The props, by design, were a bit minimal and the stage a bit sparse as the space was restricted. This put more emphasis on the costumes which really stepped up to the mark to bring some cohesiveness to the production. Some video projections were also used to imply the atmosphere of the woods. The video element wasn’t always the most successful part of the show, but considering the options with the space it was perhaps the best way to go.

The audience for this production is on two sides of the stage action, and the cast seems to address both sides fairly evenly, moving as they talk or sing so nobody is left looking at just backs for any length of time. The plot involves a lot of wandering in the woods, so the movement seems natural.

The themes do come from fairytales, but the musical isn’t necessarily meant for small children. There is nothing particularly gruesome but mature topics do make occasional appearances, especially in the second act.

 

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