Heavy music

Jack (Jake Estabrook), Cinderella's Stepmother (Stephanie Burke), Cinderella's Prince (Jesse Seward), Cinderella (Treather Gassman), Baker's Wife (Jennifer Kish), Baker (Aaron Duclos), Witch (Taffy McCarthy)
"Into The Woods" mixes fairy tale characters from different stories. (Back row, l to r) Jack (Jake Estabrook), Cinderella's Stepmother (Stephanie Burke), Cinderella's Prince (Jesse Seward), Cinderella (Treather Gassman); (front row, from left) Baker's Wife (Jennifer Kish), Baker (Aaron Duclos), Witch (Taffy McCarthy). Photo by Ralph Stewart

By Anna Marie D'Addarie - May 31, 2007

When Little Red Riding Hood skips off to visit her granny singing, "For all I know she's already dead," the audience knows they are in for more than your run-of-the-mill musical. With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Lapine, "Into The Woods" demands much of both the cast and the audience. The Island Theatre Workshop seems up to the task with strong voices, good acting, and a respectable production of this difficult musical. The show is directed by Lee Fierro with musical direction by Linda Berg.

The show is mostly sung in that almost-an-opera style popular with the Sondheim-Lapine team. Unlike its musical theatre predecessors, where the songs are an extension of the dialogue, in this type of musical the songs tell the entire story, exposition to climax. The singer must enunciate every syllable, so the audience can follow the story. It is particularly important in this show because the story is a mixture of fairy tales, superimposed on one another, and the plot gets mighty thick. These are not the Disney, whitewashed versions of the classic fairy tales, but rather the darker tales with birds pecking out eyeballs, and toes and heels lopped off so big feet will fit into a tiny shoe.

The Witch (Taffy McCarthy) and Rapunzel (Victoria Campbell)
The Witch (Taffy McCarthy) tries to convince Rapunzel (Victoria Campbell) to stay in the tower where she will be safe from humans. Rapunzel doesn't listen.

So many themes whirl by in this musical that it is hard to pin it down to even a few. But seeing this show during a time of war gives it an entirely new dimension. The Baker wonders who will pass on the story to the next generation and, more importantly, how will the story be told. How will history judge their actions as they prepare to kill the giant? Is it right? Is it wrong? The audience is left with these larger questions wrapped up in simple fairy tales.

The performances, for the most part, are solid. The ensemble numbers work well and the voices are good. Katie Clark (Little Red Riding Hood) is scary-good. She nails the role with sweetness and a macabre delivery.

Treather Gassman (Cinderella) has a beautiful voice and I wished the role called for her to use her full range. She is also a good actress, giving Cinderella the dimension the character needs to grow from cartoon to survivor.

Cinderella's Stepmother (Stephanie Burke), Florinda (Sharon Strimling Florio), and Lucinda (Jane Lawson)
Preparing for the festival are (from left) Cinderella's Stepmother (Stephanie Burke), Florinda (Sharon Strimling Florio), and Lucinda (Jane Lawson).

The Baker, played by Aaron Duclos, started out Sunday evening's show with a bit of uncertainty, but soon was flying high. This character is central to the plot and Mr. Duclos understands the material. His songs were delivered with more conviction as his confidence in his performance grew. He was a pleasure to watch and the audience wants the Baker to succeed.

Taffy McCarthy (The Witch) was difficult to understand as she chose (or was directed) to use an unusual dialect, a combination of Yiddish and Brooklyn-ese. I am very familiar with the musical and therefore was able to fill in the lyrics when I couldn't understand them. The Witch is essential to the plot, but I felt that Ms. McCarthy was disconnected from the material and the rest of the cast. I especially missed some tender moments with Rapunzel. To their credit, the cast was unaffected by this distance, and took off with the play.

Little Red Riding Hood (Katie Clarke) meets a wolf (Jesse Seward)
Little Red Riding Hood (Katie Clarke) meets a wolf (Jesse Seward) in the forest. He sings, "Hello, Little Girl" and leads her from the path.

Strong performances were turned in by Jesse Seward and Kevin Ryan as the two princes, and Mr. Seward was also the Wolf; Jennifer Kish as the loving Baker's wife who pays the ultimate price for her moment in the woods; John Ortman as the Narrator and the Mysterious Man; and Jake Estabrook as Jack of Jack-in-the-Beanstalk fame, along with Joyce Maxner, Jack's long-suffering mother.

Comic turns by Cinderella's "loving" family, played by Stephanie Burke, Sharon Strimling Florio, Jane Lawson, and Jim Osborn, were fun to watch and give the audience a chance to digest the heavy material. In true royal fashion, when the going gets tough, they run away.

"Into The Woods" is a tough musical, even for professional troupes. The Island Theatre Workshop picked themselves up by their bootstraps and tackled this show and I'm glad they did. You will be too when you see this production.

"Into The Woods," continues May 31, June 1, 2, 4, 7, 8, 10, at 7:30 pm; June 3, at 1 pm, at the Katharine Cornell Theatre, Spring St., Vineyard Haven. Tickets are $20 for adults and seniors; $15 for children. Call 508-627-3166.

Cinderella (Treather Gassman)
Cinderella (Treather Gassman) prays at the grave of her mother.
The Baker's Wife (Jennifer Kish) and the Baker (Aaron Duclos)
The Baker's Wife (Jennifer Kish) and the Baker (Aaron Duclos) will live happily ever after. Or will they?