Tuesday, February 26, 2019

"Into the Woods" by Ten Thousand Things at North Garden Theater

Into the Woods is one of Stephen Sondheim's most popular and frequently performed musicals. In the eight years I've been blogging about #TCTheater, I've now seen (and written about) seven different local productions. So I'm not going to write about the brilliance of this fairy tale mash-up (with book by James Lapine) that turns the idea of "happily ever after" on its head; you can read my thoughts about that here. Instead, I'll share with you what makes this production special, namely, because Ten Thousand Things does theater like no one else. It's my first time seeing them do Sondheim, which is exciting because TTT has a knack for breaking down the most complex shows (and Sondheim is nothing if not complex) and laying bare the truest heart of the piece. And since they're a weaver of fairy tales, traditional and otherwise, Into the Woods is a perfect match for TTT. This production (which continues through March 24 at various locations, including free performances at prisons, homeless shelters, community centers, and other places where people don't normally experience theater and therefore need it the most) is sheer perfection and perhaps my favorite thing they've done. But I say that about pretty much every TTT show I see.

A few thoughts/highlights about the show:
  • TTT's new Artistic Marcela Lorca makes her TTT directing debut, and it's an impressive one. There are a lot of characters, storylines, and locations in this piece, and it all flows beautifully and briskly under her direction.
  • This is a big and complicated score, but TTT's resident Music Director and one-man band Peter Vitale strips it down to something playful and lovely. His multi-instrumentalism is supplemented by the cast on various instruments at various times throughout the show.
  • Sonya Berlovitz's costumes are fun, versatile, and shabby chic, while helping to delineate character groups. The ensemble all start with a base of khaki pants and a white shirt, on top of which is layered a coat or cloak or dress - yellow for the Baker family, orange for Jack and his mom, bright taffeta for the step-family, gold for the royalty. The versatility is needed for the double casting, which brings me to...
the Baker (Jim Lichtsheidl), Little Red (Rajané Katurah), and
the Steward (Ben Lohrberg, photo by Paula Keller)
This cast is so delightful, they each deserve a mention:
  • Aimee K. Bryant: Aimee is such a wonderful and sympathetic Baker's Wife, and that voice! A very real, grounded, heartfelt performance
  • Austene Van: Austene is fabulous as the witch, as you would expect. Funny and fierce, and poignant in some of the witch's softer moments. She also fills in as birds, stepsister, or whatever is called for (as do many of the ensemble members).
  • Ben Lohrberg: an adorably dimwitted but good-hearted Jack, Ben's performance of "Giants in the Sky" (which is sort of a go-to song for young men in musical theater) is perhaps the best I've heard. Maybe it's partly due to the stripped down production, but the song is as full of raw real emotion as I've ever heard it.
  • Brian Bose: I know Brian mostly as a dancer/choreographer, and in fact he co-choreographed this piece with the director - creating some fun, playful, modern dances in the tiny space. It's nice to witness his other talents as well, as Cinderella's pompous prince and silly stepsister. But perhaps my favorite performance of his is as the sweetest, saddest, most emotive Milky White I've seen.
  • Elizabeth Reese: I was truly impressed with Elizabeth's ability to create such starkly different characters, both in performance and voice. She's Jack's loving but harried mother, then pulls a Bradley Cooper to lower her voice an octave or two into the predatory wolf and Rapunzel's prince. And if that's not enough, I believe I also caught her voicing the giant.
  • Jim Lichtscheidl: what can I say about Jim Lichtsheidl. I just adore everything he does. His Baker is perhaps a bit more silly and comic than some, because he's just funny. But he also broke my heart and brought tears to my eyes as the grieving husband in the second act (spoiler alert).
  • Rajané Katurah: if you saw Marie and Rosetta at Park Square Theatre last year, you know that this #TCTheater newcomer has serious chops, holding her own with no less than Jamecia Bennett. Here she's a darling and tough Little Red, as well as a sweetly singing Rapunzel and Cinderella's mother.
  • Sheena Janson Kelley: Sheena is just lovely as Cinderella, a beautiful voice (her "No One is Alone" brought more tears), and a strong independent princess to admire and root for.
  • Tyson Forbes: I recently wrote I wish Tyson would wander through every play I see playing the fiddle, and I'm happy to see that trend continue here. He's a wonderful narrator (until he's fed to the giant), a weird Mysterious Man, and a goofy Stepmother.
Even though I've seen it many times, or maybe because I have, I thoroughly enjoyed Ten Thousand Things' unique take on Into the Woods. If you're a fan of Sondheim or fairy tales or brilliantly executed bare bones theater, go see this show. Paid public performances are at Open Book on Washington Avenue in Minneapolis and at North Garden Theater on 7th Street in St. Paul (free parking and less traffic). Make your reservations now.

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