Tough Lessons Learned in Sondheim's 'Woods'


Kelrik Productions' ambitious staging of "Into the Woods" isn't your run-of-the-mill fairy tale theater for young audiences. Not only is its content PG-rated, but the fairy tale ending in this darkly comic Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical lasts only as long as intermission.

After that, "happily ever after" gives way to growing dissatisfaction for Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, the Baker and his Wife, the Witch, two Prince Charmings and Jack of beanstalk fame and his mother.

Things go from bad to worse when an enraged Giantess (unseen by the audience, but heard) wreaks havoc in the woods ("boom, splat"). She's looking for Jack (Erik Austin), who caused her husband's demise by chopping down the beanstalk, and she doesn't care where she steps.

From then on, it's death, destruction, disillusionment and sadder but wiser survivors.

With painstaking direction and choreography by T.J. Dawson, the large ensemble of youthful adults doesn't find all the emotional layers in the musical's bittersweet observations of parents, children and the consequences of choices. It does a respectable job, however, with some well-sung moments and surprisingly, the more problematic and challenging second act is the company's strongest.

Notable among the most solid performances are Jeanette Charity and Janice Hughes, who gracefully meet the vocal challenges of Sondheim's difficult score. Charity is lovely, capable Cinderella, who finds that winning a prince isn't all it's cracked up to be; and Hughes is the lovely, capable Baker's Wife, whose desire for a child comes with a high price.

Lending enjoyable comic touches are Michelle Hernandez as hair-obsessed, incessantly humming Rapunzel, and John Brantley Cole Jr. and William Gorin as the two Prince Charmings, who find that attaining the unattainable can be rather a letdown. Gorin's deliberately over-the-top, strutting suavity is a kick, although Cole is the stronger singer. Lola Ward is a vivid, droll presence as self-absorbed Little Red Riding Hood; Cole's dual role as the seductive Wolf could be more crisply defined.

Some performances deepen as the Sondheim-Lapine tale darkens, particularly Chett Gunhus' mild-mannered, bereft Baker and Deanna Pino's Witch. Too hectic in Act 1, Pino gains stature in Act 2, giving full value to the poignant "Children Will Listen."

The interior set pieces and shadowy forest designed by Austin, and the full costuming credited to Austin, Keith Wenzel and Vicki Rovel-Kirk work nicely. The crucial lighting, designed by Jessie Boemper, works well for the most part, though there were a few miscues at a recent performance. The major misstep is over-miked voice-overs bumpily integrated into the prerecorded music.

With its themes of lost innocence, the Wolf's lustful appetite and grisly demise, death by giant and a mild seduction scene, and with its nearly three-hour length including intermission, this show is recommended for older children and adults.


* "Into the Woods," Excalibur Theater, 12655 Ventura Blvd., in the Sports Center Bowl, 2nd Floor, Studio City. Saturdays, 7 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Through July 15. $15, adults; $12, children younger than 12. (818) 760-PLAY.

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