Sunday, September 11, 2011

Theatre Review by Keith Waits: "Into the Woods" at Clarksville Little Theatre

Stephen Sondheim writes some of the richest, most complex and supple music in American Musical Theatre, and Into the Woods is one of his strongest works. Clarksville Little Theatre’s is a consolidated interpretation of this theatre classic and expectations must, of course, be somewhat truncated as well.  

Clarksville Little Theatre’s current production directed and choreographed by Debra Rice Endris does some things very well, while reenforcing the stereotypical perception of community theatre as a collection of well-meaning amateurs with varying degrees of experience and ability, working their hearts out to create something meaningful on stage for friends, family and the rest of us. This is a solidly paced performance with actors who articulate the intricate lyrics with skill, while exhibiting a range of mostly unsteady singing voices that inevitably fall short in finding the emotional power of the music.

The first act stitches together Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Jack and the Beanstalk into a narrative joined by an original tale of an infertile baker and his wife. Before intermission, all the threads seem to have been tied up neatly, in the best storybook tradition. The second act unravels the tidiness and makes a lie of “happily ever after” by introducing modern-day motivations and complications including infidelity and betrayal. It is Sondheim once again subverting the archetypes of a genre and playing games with the cultural cliché in mischievous manner characteristic of his later work.

For the most part, Debra Rice Endris’ staging elucidates the text’s wit and humor, but misses the passion and high energy begging to be realized.  Accompanist Paul Stiller replaces the original 16-piece arrangements with a single keyboard. His dedication suggests more excitement and drama than one musician might be expected to provide, but  it is clearly a limitation.  The cast balances seasoned veterans with fresh young talent, with capable work by John Campbell Finnegan and Cristina Mullins as the Baker and his Wife that build a good foundation for the audience to enter the story. Bryce Egan is a wistful Jack and Madison Cunningham and Chelsea Endris make for lovely versions of Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood, respectively.  Robbie Smith, taking turns as both The Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince, exhibits some very real skills, although his snarky take on the Prince seemed a curious choice.

Valerie Hopkins gives a solid performance as The Witch, and easily provides the appropriate glamour after her transformation; like others in the company her lack of vocal training is apparent at times and projection is an intermittent issue throughout.  The vocal tapestry is understandably threadbare during some of the solo passages and benefits greatly when player combine forces.

Despite its limitations Into the Woods is an entertaining evening with a charming, energetic cast. I particularly enjoyed moments from some of the smaller roles, such as Jenna Ryan and Winnie Spitza as Cinderella’s nasty step-sisters, Florinda and Lucinda. The roles are entirely one-note and given no depth in the script, but the actors delivered fully James Lapine’s comic elements.

On a technical note, I do hope that the very loud and squeaky noise that reoccurred as scenery was raised can be addressed for future performances. It was an unfortunate distraction.

Into the Woods runs September 9, 10, 11, 15, 16 & 17 at Clarksville Little Theatre, 301 E. Montgomery Ave. Clarksville, IN 47129. For tickets and more information call 812-283-6522 or go to

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