Review

Vanguard goes boldly ‘Into the Woods’

Stephen Sondheim’s mega-hit musical “Into the Woods” would present a challenge to a theater of normal dimensions. For one which operates under the cramped conditions of Vanguard University’s Lyceum Theater, mounting this show would seem, to reference another show, an impossible dream.

Yet here it is, in all its artistic gusto and intricate technical design, scarcely missing a beat in a gloriously fulfilling production, ignoring structural limitations to present a full-blown rendition of the Sondheim-James Lapine masterwork.

For director Vanda Eggington, known for her creative musical adaptations, “Into the Woods” stands as a high-water mark, an illustrious revival in high fidelity to the original Broadway triumph. With the sterling assistance of musical director Joshua David Martin and choreographer Bretlyn Schmitt-Lazaris, the brilliant scenic designs of Paul Eggington and the fairy tale costumes of Lia Hanson, the show is a marvel to behold.

To create this modern classic that debuted 30 years ago, Sondheim and Lapine gathered several children’s stories from their youth and scrambled the characters into one improbable story line, adding a witch and a baker and his wife for flavoring. These latter three rev up the engine of “Into the Woods” and they do so at Vanguard as well.

Alexandria Miller revels in the prime role of the sorceress who sends the other two off on a quest for the strange items that will remove her spell (and, as it turns out, her powers). Austin Nunn and Kate Frampton are splendid as the baking couple, with Nunn handling the moralizing and Frampton dabbling in the immoral variety (her solo following her “moment” with the prince is hilarious).

A certified scene stealer is Megan Fox, feisty and combative as Little Red Riding Hood. Hannah DeBoer is a melodic Cinderella with Andreas Schmidt solidly self-absorbed as her prince (“I was raised to be charming, not sincere.”) His princely brother gets the more traditional treatment from Austin Christensen.

Pierre Ekladios does double duty as the show’s narrator and the “mysterious man” who haunts the baker. Stephan Miser is a properly naive Jack (of beanstalk lore) with Hanna Elsits a delightful nag as his mother.

Also stirring this volatile mixture are the wolfish Cameron Burchard, the golden-voiced Rapunzel of Gabrielle Incremona, Eileen Leyva as Red’s ailing Granny and Priscilla Schmitt doubling as Cinderella’s sweet mother and the voice of the vengeful giant. Ethan Boyle swipes his near-wordless scenes as a hippity-hopping steward.

Costumer Lia Hanson also designed the often-grotesque makeup (the witch’s first-act gruesomeness is a work of art). Those responsible for the terrific technical effects are too numerous to mention.

“Into the Woods” is among the greatest works of the American musical theater and atop Broadway emperor Stephen Sondheim’s list as well. This epic show gets a superb revival at Costa Mesa’s Vanguard University.

“Other Half” in rollicking Newport revival

It’s been a few decades since we last sat in on the madly mixed-up dinner party that closes the first act of Alan Ayckbourn’s estimable comedy “How the Other Half Loves,” and the play’s robust revival at the Newport Theatre Arts Center certainly is cause for celebration.

A staple of the 1970s in local theater (between myself and the friend who accompanied me to the Newport performance, we’ve logged six productions of it), “Other Half” has been absent for some time now, which makes the current rendition a nostalgic delight.

For the uninitiated, Ayckbourn’s farcical gem is set in the living rooms of two couples — the upper-class Fosters and the less-well-off Phillipses. Both the settings and the action overlap — the latter often occurring simultaneously, which is where the fun really begins.

At Newport, director Gigi Fusco Meese has melded these couples — along with a third, unassuming pair — into a robust romp. While its origins are English, the play has been Americanized to the degree that references Allentown, Pa. and the New York-based paper Village Voice. The time period remains early 1970s.

In a cast of a half-dozen enthusiastic, laugh-grabbing performers, two actors stand out – Yvonne Robertson as the boss’ proper (but naughty) wife and Abel Garcia as the straight-laced newcomer. Robertson’s guilt-laden facial responses are hilarious, while Garcia fumes furiously out of normal character at the thought of his wife’s possible dalliances.

As the company leader trying to fix personnel problems in his own bumbling fashion, Michael Durack also scores effectively, dropping an occasional aside remark to punctuate the comedy. Emily MacAgy, playing the new guy’s terminally unsophisticated wife, also has some fine blank-faced moments.

Then there’s the middle couple, who battle both verbally and physically. Robert and Alexandra Moniz (they’re married offstage as well) handle the farcical elements of Ayckbourn’s epic with richly outrageous antics.

Set designer Andrew Otereo’s overlapping backdrop works well for the Newport show, as do Joni Stockinger’s 1970s costumes. For those who remember the show with fondness, “How the Other Half Loves” will strike a nostalgic chord at the Newport Theatre Arts Center.

IF YOU GO

What: “Into the Woods”

When: 7:30 p.m. April 19-22 and 2 p.m. April 22 and 23

Where: Vanguard University Lyceum Theater, 55 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa

Cost: $15 to $19

Information: (714) 668-6145 or visit vanguardtickets.com

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What: “How the Other Half Loves”

Where: Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach

When: Till April 30; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays

Cost: $17

Information: (949) 631-0288 or visit www.ntaconline.com.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater.

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