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North Carolina Theatre’s Vivacious Version of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods Is Delightful

Jacquelyn Piro Donovan (left) and Emily Leonard star as the Witch and Rapunzel (photo by Curtis Scott Brown)

Jacquelyn Piro Donovan (left) and Emily Leonard star as the Witch and Rapunzel (photos by Curtis Scott Brown)

On Oct. 20th, Stephen Sondheim’s twist on Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Into the Woods, opened at the North Carolina Theatre, for the first time in NCT’s 32-year history. With a howl, a few curses, and some cannibalism, beloved fairy-tale characters became quite different from what we normally envision — and with great aplomb! It was definitely worth the wait for this 28-year-old, Tony Award®-winning classic.

The plot interweaves the story of several of the Brothers’ Grimm’s tales, including Rapunzel, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Little Red Riding Hood. The original themes and goals of each character become distorted and confusing as the characters interact and the consequences of their decisions start to change the course of their lives.

The North Carolina Theatre‘s cast for this delightful musical includes both Broadway veterans such as Jacquelyn Piro Donovan and local natives such as Laurel Harris, who cavorted across the stage in their roles as the Witch and the Baker’s Wife, respectively. Dirk Lumbard, also a veteran of local and Broadway productions, opens the tale as the Narrator/Mysterious Man, introducing the audience to the weirdly complicated ways in which the fairy-tale characters’ lives intersect. His physical stature and ability to play a pompous storyteller ushered in the story within the story. He plays the part in a campy manner, which sets the tone for the rest of the performance.

Abby Church (center), Ashley Adamek (left), and Kinsland Howell star as Cinderella and her Stepsisters (photo by Curtis Scott Brown)

Abby Church (center), Ashley Adamek (left), and Kinsland Howell star as Cinderella and her Stepsisters

Cinderella (Abby Church) has the personality of an angel, but spends most of her days scrubbing floors while being tormented by her wicked stepmother (Christine Hunter) and two ugly stepsisters (Ashley Adamek and Kinsland Howell); but when she gets her dream job as princess, she begins to question her happily-ever-after. Church, a veteran of Broadway, and national and international tours, sings into the rafters during her solo, “On the Steps of the Palace,” filling the theater with her soprano, and becomes as close to real as can be possible for Cinderella-from-the-ashes. Hunter, Adamek, and Howell are perfectly awkward, cruel, and ignorant as the stepmother and stepsisters.

The Baker (Jamison Stern) and his Wife (Laurel Harris) desperately want a child and, of course, are childless as a result of a witch’s curse. Their need for a family is what drives this story, and Stern and Harris are up for the ride. They play off well against each other, handle their duet in “Maybe They’re Magic” nicely, and their comedic timing is razor sharp.

Jennifer Cody, who plays Little Red Riding Hood with effervescent comic energy and a spoonful of sarcasm, is absolutely hilarious. From the moment she steps on stage, it’s obvious that her cartoon-like voice and irreverent portrayal of the child who went into the woods to see her grandmother, is not the innocent preteen we know from the fairytale. Cody’s Red Riding Hood is sassy, brave, and just a wee bit scary.

Jennifer Cody and Nathaniel Hackmann star as Little Red Riding Hood and the big bad Wolf (photo by Curtis Scott Brown)

Jennifer Cody and Nathaniel Hackmann star as Little Red Riding Hood and the big bad Wolf

Jack (Jeremy Morse) and his Mother (Pauline Cobrda) wrestle with a vegetarian’s dilemma when Jack’s pet cow is on the block. When payment for the cow is magic seeds that grow giant beanstalks, the whole fairy-tale community is about to pay the price. Morse and Cobrda inhabit their characters and play them as bumpkins with big hearts.

Just as dumb and equally as cursed as the others is Rapunzel (Emily Leonard), locked forever in a tower where she awaits an equally dumb (and narcissistic) Prince (Ben Michael). Though Rapunzel’s story is pretty one-dimensional, Leonard brings a bit of comic flare to her screaming scenes. Michael comes alive in another setting, however. He and Cinderella’s Prince (Nathaniel Hackmann) shine together during their duet called “Agony.” Their voices are suited for the scene’s rising tension as the princes battle each other about who has the worst life. They play both characters with a wonderful sense of self-impressed comments and with a delicate way of bringing an arched eyebrow to a verbal pun.

Because behind all of these stories and problems is the main villain, the story’s protagonist: the Witch, played with equal doses of camp, class, mystery, and New York brashness by Jacquelyn Piro Donovan. Fresh from her role as the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz, Donovan is no stranger to the over-the-top theatrics that it takes to bring a witch alive on stage. She fairly crackles with electricity as she manages all of her spells and dives in and out of each of the four stories that create this tale.

Ben Michael (left) and Nathaniel Hackmann star as Rapunzel's Prince and Cinderella's Prince (photo by Curtis Scott Brown)

Ben Michael (left) and Nathaniel Hackmann star as Rapunzel’s Prince and Cinderella’s Prince

Though the stars of Into the Woods shine on their own, this story would be empty without the supporting characters. Jeff Aguiar (as Cinderella’s Steward) works for UNC-Greensboro and has two decades of arts credits to his name. Cinderella’s Mother (Lisa Jolley) spoke from beyond the grave to weave in a necessary detail of Cinderella’s story. Jolley, a faculty member for the North Carolina Theatre Conservatory, has many North Carolina credits.

Sleeping Beauty (Lauren Satterwhite) and Snow White (Emily Thomas) even arrive during the second act to round out the group of fairy-tale princesses. Though not blessed with solos, the women’s versions of their princesses fit our preconceived visions.

Not to be outdone, scenic designer Paul Wonsek’s sets moved with ease, accommodating all of the story lines while still easily moved and appropriate. Large trees framed the edges of the stage, often encroaching on characters, or removed to include a castle tower or a baker’s home. The multidimensional space adapted to the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium’s stage, yet still allowed plenty of room for dramatics.

The show will continue until Oct. 25th, and it is a perfect entrée into the Halloween season.

Jamison Stern, Raleigh native Laurel Harris (center), and Jacquelyn Piro Donovan star as the Baker and his Wife and the Witch who laid a curse of barrenness on them (photo by Curtis Scott Brown)

Jamison Stern, Raleigh native Laurel Harris (center), and Jacquelyn Piro Donovan star as the Baker and his Wife and the Witch who laid a curse of barrenness on them

SECOND OPINION: Oct. 21st Raleigh, NC BroadwayWorld.com Raleigh video by BroadwayWorld TV: http://www.broadwayworld.com/article/BWW-TV-Watch-Highlights-of-Jacquelyn-Piro-Donovan-Laurel-Harris-Jennifer-Cody-and-More-in-NCTs-INTO-THE-WOODS-20151021; Oct. 17th Raleigh, NC News & Observer interview with Laurel Harris, conducted by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article39402348.html; Oct. 16th Raleigh, NC ArtsNow preview by Mike Williams: http://artsnownc.com/2015/10/16/a-performers-inspiration-laurel-harris-returns-to-her-triangle-roots/ and Oct. 14th interview with Emily Leonard, conducted by Melissa Howsam: http://artsnownc.com/2015/10/14/venture-into-the-woods-with-emily-leonard/; Oct. 16th Raleigh, NC Garner Cleveland Record preview by Tim Stevens: http://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/community/garner-cleveland-record/article39397248.html; and Oct. 15th Raleigh, NC WNCN interview with the Baker and the Baker’s Wife (played by Jamison Stern and Laurel Harris), conducted by Valonda Calloway and Alex Butler for “My Carolina Today”: http://wncn.com/2015/10/15/into-the-woods-at-memorial-auditorium/. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Oct. 19th Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2015/10/n-c-theatres-into-the-woods-stars-broadways-laurel-harris-and-jacquelyn-piro-donovan-oct-20-25/.)

The North Carolina Theatre presents INTO THE WOODS at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 22 and 23, and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 24 and 25 in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27601.

TICKETS: $25.14-$114.14.

BOX OFFICE:

NCT Box Office: 919-831-6941, ext. 6944, or http://www.nctheatre.com/tickets/season-tickets.

Ticketmaster: 800-745-3000 or http://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/115203/708548.

GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919-831-6941, ext. 6949; groups@nctheatre.com; or http://nctheatre.com/groups.

SHOW: http://nctheatre.com/shows/into-woods, https://www.facebook.com/events/1670103303265585/, and http://www.dukeenergycenterraleigh.com/event/into-the-woods-5698.

PRESENTER: http://www.nctheatre.com/, https://www.facebook.com/nctheatre, https://twitter.com/nctheatre, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Carolina_Theatre, and http://www.youtube.com/user/nctheatre.

2015-16 SEASON: http://nctheatre.com/show-season/201516-season.

NCT BLOG (Stage Notes): http://www.nctheatre.com/stage-notes.

VENUE: http://www.dukeenergycenterraleigh.com/venue/memorial-auditorium and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duke_Energy_Center_for_the_Performing_Arts#Raleigh_Memorial_Auditorium.

DIRECTIONS: http://www.dukeenergycenterraleigh.com/directions.

PARKING: http://www.dukeenergycenterraleigh.com/parking.

NOTE: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 24th, performance.

OTHER LINKS:

Into the Woods (1987 Broadway and 1990 West End musical): http://www.mtishows.com/show_detail.asp?showid=000106 (Music Theatre International), http://www.sondheimguide.com/woods.html (Stephen Sondheim Reference Guide), http://www.jameslapine.com/into-the-woods (James Lapine web page), http://www.ibdb.com/show.php?id=4753 (Internet Broadway Database), and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Into_the_Woods (Wikipedia).

Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).

Study Guide: http://www.bard.org/education/studyguides/IntoWoods/intothewoods.html (Utah Shakespeare Festival).

Stephen Sondheim (New York City-born composer and lyricist, born 1930): http://sondheim.org/ (Stephen Sondheim Society), http://www.sondheimguide.com/ (Stephen Sondheim Reference Guide), http://www.ibdb.com/person.php?id=12430 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Sondheim (Wikipedia).

James Lapine (Mansfield, OH-born playwright and director, born 1949): http://www.jameslapine.com/ (official website), http://www.ibdb.com/person.php?id=6607 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Lapine (Wikipedia).

James Brennan (Newark, NJ-born director and choreographer): http://ibdb.com/Person/View/79727 (Internet Broadway Database) and https://www.facebook.com/james.brennan.790 (Facebook page).

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Dawn Reno Langley is a Durham, NC-based author who writes novels, poetry, children’s books, and nonfiction books on many subjects, as well as theater, music, and dance reviews. She is also a writer, editor, writing coach at Reno’s Literary Services of Durham. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts and Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/. To read more of her writings, click http://dawnrenolangley.blogspot.com/ and http://poetryandgardening.blogspot.com/.

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