Danielle Ferland's Second Journey 'Into the Woods,' Now At Westport Playhouse

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Little Red Riding Hood has grown up.

Danielle Ferland, who played the sassy and spirited crimson-caped girl 25 years ago in the original Broadway production of "Into the Woods," is playing the role of The Baker's Wife in a revival of the musical at the Westport Country Playhouse. It is a co-production with Baltimore's Centerstage where it was presented earlier this year.

"I definitely feel as though I've come full circle," says the Derby-born, Stratford-raised Ferland. "But there is also this sense of déjà vu, too. It's amazing what you remember all these years. It's so weird."

The actress was a young teenager at Bunnell High School when she began learning the Red in workshops in the mid-'80s. The show, with music by Stephen Sondheim and book and direction by James Lapine, opened on Broadway in 1987 and later was filmed on DVD. There was also a Broadway revival in 2002.

There will be another production of the show this summer at the Delacorte Theater in New York's Central Park, based on a celebrated outdoor production in London. The Central Park show, which plays July 23 to Aug. 25, stars Amy Adams as The Baker's Wife and Tony Award-winner Donna Murphy as The Witch.

Ferland, 41, made her Broadway debut in another Sondheim/Lapine show when she was 13 — as the little girl Louise in "Sunday in the Park with George" in 1984. She had been acting for several years, making the rounds in commercials and performing in local productions ,when she auditioned for the new musical.

Lapine had Ferland sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," and then had her sing it in several different ways to see how well she took direction. The director was impressed.

But even when she was offered the "Sunday" role, she hadn't grasped the significance of the opportunity. She had been cast in a non-Equity production of "Gypsy" at Candlewood Playhouse in New Fairfield as Baby June, and Ferland wanted to do that part.

Her agent talked with the young girl and her mother to make them understand what being in a new musical by America's leading Broadway composer meant. "Eventually we worked it out where I could do both shows," she says. It also helped that "Sunday" starred Mandy Patinkin, whom Ferland's mother "had a crush on since 'Evita.' "

"Even though I was the only kid in the cast, [Lapine] made me feel important and valuable."

It was a relationship that continued when the writer-director cast her as the street-smart-but-still-vulnerable Little Red Riding Hood for "Into the Woods," a show that took characters from several classic fairy tales, created a few new ones, and put them all into a mysterious forest in where they discover the reality of what actually happens after "happily ever after."

The role of Red was reportedly created with her in mind. "I definitely think there is a little bit of Red in me. I do have that dry sense of humor."

The role also allowed Ferland to shine with significant stage time playing a character that developed over the story. And it gave her a solo song, "I Know Things Now."

And what does she know now?

"When you're younger you don't know so much about the business aspect of it all," she says during a break in rehearsals. "You maintain your innocence and you just do it. You don't over-think it. But when you're older, you do and you might over-think things. I love that feeling of acting on pure instinct. I miss that. That's what being a kid is all about."

Growing Up

Ferland enjoyed performing when she was growing up in Stratford. But things changed when Virginia Capron, a dancing school teacher in Trumbull — "She's kind of legendary in my neck of the woods" — noticed something special in her pupil. "She thought I had talent and I was cast in a [local] summer production of "The Wizard of Oz" where I played Dorothy."

After that show, Capron asked Ferland's parents if they and Danielle, who was 10, were interested in meeting some agents in New York. "Because we were [so close] to New York, we said, "Sure.' My parents were very supportive since day one."

Ferland says she enjoyed auditioning for commercials but she really wanted to sing and dance on Broadway "but I never thought it would happen, certainly not at such a young age. I was fortunate to have this woman who was a go-getter for me."

Ferland says it's a different world for child actors now "because of all the social media" and shows like "American Idol." "You have to be very careful with your kids because now everyone can be seeing everything that you and they do."

She gives master classes and has taught at Boston's Children's Theatre. She says she connects with kids and their parents because she performed as a child and she continued to have a working life in the theater while maintaining "a family and a well-rounded life."

What does she tell parents who have children interested in performing on stage?

"Really listen to your child," she says, "especially if you sense your child is not happy. Just make sure this is what they really want to do. As a parent you want to protect your child and you don't want them to be disappointed. It's a hard, harsh business. And when you ask them what else would they would like to do, see if they say, 'What do you mean, what else? There is nothing else'."

As she grew older, Ferland transitioned to adult roles. Among her credits are Broadway's "All My Sons," "A Little Hotel On the Side" and "A Year with Frog and Toad," off-Broadway's "She Stoops to Conquer" and Westport Playhouse's "The Streets of New York" and "The School for Husbands."

Baker's Wife

Ferland says she always wanted to play the Baker's Wife, a role originated by Joanna Gleason (who won a Tony for her portrayal).

The actress says she feels there's a connection between Red and the Baker's Wife, given both characters' dry humor, sharpness and practical side.

Dana Steingold plays Red in the Westport/Centerstage production "and she's great. She has her own thing going on." She says that's her aim for her new part, too and has refrained from checking out the DVD made from the original production, "My goal is to stay open to new ideas [for the character]."

But when she does allow herself a look back?

"When I think back at myself I think I was a person who was someone who worked very hard, someone who was committed, someone who didn't let things go to my head. I was proud of myself as a youngster. If anything, I wish I had gotten more sleep. Now I remember how hard the commute was. How did I do that every night? But I was so lucky. I have to pinch myself. I still remember when the show opened thinking, 'I can't believe this is happening'."

INTO THE WOODS is playing at the Westport Country Playhouse through May 26. Tickets are $30 to $65, not including fees. Information: 203-227-4177 and http://www.westportplayhouse.org.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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