Music and Lyrics by Steven Sondheim
Book by James Lapine
Directed by Rick Lombardo
New Repertory Theatre
64 Lincoln St., Newton Highlands / (617) 332-1646
Through May 29

Reviewed by Will Stackman

The season for smaller theatres in the Boston area started off auspiciously with two Sondheim productions, Lyric's "A Little Night Music" and Speakeasy's "Company". It's finishing up in the same fashion with the New Rep's intimate revival of "Into the Woods". The strong local cast includes IRNE winner, Leigh Barrett as the Baker's Wife, and Nancy E. Carroll as the Witch. Barrett played Charlotte in "...Night Music" while Carroll appeared as Joanne in "Company." Kerry A. Dowling, a recent IRNE awardee also in "Company", appears as Jack's Mother, while IRNE winner Miguel Cervantes, seen at New Rep in "Scapin" last spring, is back as Jack. Todd Alan Johnson, seen at the new Rep as Sweeney Todd and Mack the Knife in previous seasons, is back doubling as the Wolf and Prince Charming. Evan Harrington who played Pirelli, the other barber, is more sympathetic as the Baker. Also back is Paul J. Farwell, who played the Judge versus Sweeney and Mr. Peachum opposite Carroll. He's the Narrator--and the Mysterious Stranger. Cinderella's Mother,appearing as a spirit, is Naomi Gurt Lind, a versatile performer seen in "Sweeney...", also plays Little Red's Granny, and voices the Giantess.Barrett also played Jeannie in New Rep's Domar Warehouse version "ThreePenny." With half his cast this strong and already familiar with the intimate confines of the hall, director Rick Lombardo had a sound base to build on.

The newcomers are equally impressive. Cinderella is played by Aimee Dougherty, who appeared last fall as one of Bobbie's girlfriends. Little Red herself is Veronica J. Kuehn, a recipient of Paper Mill's Rising Star Award, currently a Music Theatre major at BosCon. Peripetatic tenor Andrew Giardano, Rapunzel's Prince, who co-produced and appeared in "Forever Plaid" with Cervantes here in town last summer, has appeared on and off Broadway, and was seen last fall in Stoneham's "Tommy". Rapunzel is a new N.E.C. MFA Hayley Thompson-King who recently appeared for Opera Boston. Timothy Espinoza, a Brandeis M.F.A.playing the Prince's Steward, is back locally after various national and world tours. And finally, Cinderella's family includes Megan Gleason, seen in Stoneham's "Lizzie Borden," as the wicked Step-mother, new Brandeis M.F.A. Jessica Hansen as one Step-sister, Rachel Zampelli understudying the Witch and the Baker's Wife as the other, and Eric Ruben, seen as the King in Turtle Lane's "Once Upon a Mattress", mostly silent again as Father.

Those unfamiliar with this interweaving of classical fairy tales will need to pay attention during the action. Briefly however, Cinderella is pining to go to the Royal Festival and suffering the usual mistreatment from her step-mother and step-siblings. Jack's Mother sends him off to sell the cow, his pet Milky White. Little Red Riding Hood is taking goodies to her ailing Granny--if she doesn't eat them all first. The Baker and his Wife have been cursed by barrenness, because his father stole vegetables, including magic beans, from the garden of the Witch, their neighbor. The harridan will lift the spell if the Baker brings her "the cow as white as mild, the cloak as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, the slipper as pure as gold". And incidentally, the Witch took his sister, Rapunzel, as a baby and has kept her prisoner in a tower in the forest. A narrator helps the stories along, beginning with "once upon a time, ...", but doesn't really supply that many details. And when things turn really dark in the second act, he's among those squashed by the Giant's Wife, as she seeks revenge, leaving the surviving characters to invent their own ending. This is no formula musical. Indeed, the vocal score is equally complex, involving motifs and lyrics which reoccur and develop all the way through.

New Rep's production gets the expected instrumental support from a tight eight piece ensemble prepared by music director Todd C. Gordon. Since he was unable to conduct the opening, that task fell to able associate music director, Steven Bergman with Timothy Evans as the other keyboard and Josh Finstein as his alternate. Designer Peter Colao from Wooden Kiwi, who did "Sweeney..." and "ThreePenny..." previously in this space, solved the show's complex multiple settings by using three storybooks which open to various pages revealing pop-up style set pieces. These illustrations plus sliding cutout trees and a scrim are sufficient to keep things moving along both in and out of the woods. IRNE winner Franklin Meissner Jr. does his usual fluid lighting design. The physical design staff is probably eagerly looking forward to the increased flexibility of the company's new home at Watertown's Arsenal Center for the Arts. B.U. costumer Nancy Leary created a set of substantial fairytale costumes equal to her reputation. Kelli Edwards managed to choreograph the full cast of 16 on the limited thrust stage for finales as well as handling moments during vocal numbers--without the singers stopping to dance.

Sondheim shows are challenging, which makes performers eager to put out the extra effort to get them right. Ensemble numbers--and there are more than usual--aren't merely sing-alongs, thus even minor characters need experienced singers. Over several seasons, artistic director Rick Lombardo has developed the reputation and contacts to make such a production possible. This current effort will continue to improve as more of the myriad details mesh and technical intricacies are refined. While the company was looking forward doing this show as the opening of their new venue at the Arsenal, the intimate focus achieved in Newton makes this chamber production equally special.

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