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Theater Review: Into The Woods

PC; Jack Grace

Before “Wicked,” there was “Into The Woods.” To put it another way: once upon a time, before the 2003 Stephen Schwartz musical blockbuster allowed us to see our favorite fairy tale characters in a whole new light, the 1987 Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical did it first. At the Castle Theater within the Maui Arts and Cultural Center, the vision of Sondheim and co-creator James Lapine comes to life in director David C. Johnston’s vibrant, lovely and wild production.

We meet Jack (Kiegan Otterson, in a moving turn), who is forced by his Mother (a terrific Kristi Scott) to sell his cow (played by Yezzi, doing amazing things with zero dialog). We also meet up with Cinderella (a dazzling Leighanna Locke), Rapunzel (an ideally cast Sara Jelley) and Little Red Riding Hood (Casey Hughes, absolutely amazing). In less fanciful settings, the Baker (played by a charming Logan Jacob Heller) and his wife (Lina Krueger, hysterical) are hoping to have a child and may have found a way, in the bizarre offer from a nearby Witch (played by Kirsten Otterson, vamping it up in spectacular fashion). In the first act, we meet these daffy, vivid figures from our childhood bedtime stories, see their tales from a decidedly adult perspective and later, in the second act, find out what happens after “Happily Ever After.”

Each vignette roars by, as the characters we traditionally know to wrestle with Grim scenarios are struggling with change, sudden urges, covetous behavior and newfound desires. Both comical and surprisingly dramatic, “Into The Woods” brings out the best in its sprawling cast, who bring joy and passion to their work

There are several performances here to treasure.  Krueger’s exemplary comic timing serves the first act but her role changes gears in the second act and the actress shapes the Baker’s Wife with a disarming tenderness. Her rendering of “Moments in the Woods” is a major highlight. Likewise, Otterson is playing Jack from a genuine place, making the boy’s journey emotionally resonant.

Jerry Eiting and Ricky Jones are hilarious as the embodiment of foppish, fairy tale masculinity (their “Agony” duets are blissful). Eiting and Krueger have a comic highlight in the second act and I also loved the maniacal glee Ally Shore brings to the sadistic Granny. It sounds like stunt casting that Kathy Collins is voicing The Giant (brought to life by clever stagecraft) but Collins uses her distinct vocals to great dramatic effect. Robert E. Wills effectively carries the role of The Narrator and Ms. Otterson, who goes Over/Under/Beyond the Top as the Witch, sings her numbers with great feeling and emotional heft.

Yezzi, who also choreographed, plays Milky White the cow, adorning a facial apparatus similar to how the horses of “Equus’ are traditionally portrayed. I loved Yezzi’s expressive, endearing work.  My favorite performance comes from Hughes, who somehow manages to characterize Little Red Riding Hood as an impish child but also finds a sharp angle of satire to tap into. Hughes’ scenes with Frances Taua, perverse perfection as the Big Bad Wolf, positively crackle.

It’s time to address The Streak, which goes like this: “Les Miz,” “Miss Saigon,” “Evita,” “Jekyll & Hyde” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” all larger-than-life productions that were helmed at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center by David C. Johnston. These massive undertakings, featuring the best in local talent, massive sets and state of the art theatricality, are remarkably accomplished works of community theater. Many have noted how they come across like Broadway-caliber shows. His latest is no exception, The Streak continues and Johnston, once again, astonishes. Jamie Tait’s sets have the soft beauty and vivid texture of a fairy tale illustration. Jojo Siu’s costumes are fantastic, often jaw-dropping. The full-bodied orchestra, led by Gary W. Leavitt, brings Sondheim’s music to roaring life.

Johnston has clearly encouraged his actors to find the inner life and emotional core of Sondheim’s unceasingly bouncy, wordy songs. These fairy tale figures are confronted with grown-up realizations, such as how children sometimes become their parents, that some of us were raised by monsters and life experience is full of scary unpredictability and contradictions. This is a world where a swirl of birds can either enchant and speak to you or, in a few cases, scratch your eyes out. “Into The Woods” is a comic musical but challenges in its dramatic explorations. There is an awful lot in this very long, eventful show.

While I’d hardly call “Into The Woods” bawdy, the Big Bad Wolf at one point brings up a “scrumptious carnality,” which is a way of saying that, despite the subject matter, this isn’t a show for children. Nevertheless, if small keiki are present, they’re likely to be enchanted by the visuals and characterizations. While “Into The Woods” isn’t children’s theater, I suspect older kids would find it captivating. Most of the suggestive moments will likely go over their heads.

The characters of “Into The Woods” push through their struggles and discover a newfound outlook on their lives after experiencing personal hardships. The timing of this production couldn’t be more perfect, as everyone on Maui and island wide is recovering from the effects of Hurricane Lane. In fact, the planned opening night of “Into The Woods” was halted by the uncertain weather reports. For anyone who loves musicals and wants to experience local theater at the peak of community artistry, this show feels like a welcome, comforting time to heal and reflect.

Into The Woods plays at the Castle Theater August 26th-Sept 2nd. Tickets are available at mauiacademy.org or by calling 808-242-7469.

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About Barry Wurst II

Barry Wurst II
Barry Wurst II is a senior editor & film critic at MAUIWatch. He wrote film reviews for a local Maui publication and taught film classes at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs (UCCS). Wurst also co-hosted podcasts for Screengeeks.com and has been published in Bright Lights Film Journal and in other film-related websites. He is currently featured in the new MAUIWatch Podcast- The NERDWatch.

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