Not your usual fairy tale


July 31, 2000|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Cockpit in Court's production of the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine fairy tale musical, "Into the Woods," isn't entirely a happily-every-after experience. It's more like so-so ever-after.

Granted, the show isn't about attaining bliss. Although ostensibly lighter than most Sondheim musicals, "Into the Woods" has its darker, deeper side, particularly in the second act, which is about what happens when Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and Jack (of Beanstalk fame) discover that having their dreams come true can be a real nightmare.

The characters' stories are cleverly interlocked onstage, and director/choreographer Tom Wyatt keeps the action moving clearly, if not always swiftly. But despite an able cast, which includes a number of standout performers, some of the magic is missing.

Lapine added a fairy tale of his own to the classic tales mentioned above. The new story concerns a childless Baker and his Wife, who are trying to undo a Witch's spell, which has made them infertile. The show's most realistic characters, they are also the most richly drawn, and Michael Ross Himelfarb and Holly Pasciullo deliver affectionately empathetic performances as the reluctant hero and his determined wife.

These two characters are chiefly responsible for the musical's central theme - the importance of cooperation and community, a lesson the better-known but selfish fairy tale characters resist until, for some, it is too late. Two of the most amusingly selfish characters are a pair of Prince Charmings, played with preening conceit and resonant voices by Tom Burke and Ken Ewing (who doubles as Little Red Riding Hood's Wolf, a character he portrays as part biker, part rock star.)

The central villain is, of course, the Witch, and Lanor Long depicts her as a no-holds-barred diva, although the actress' tendency to belt her songs often verges on shrieking. Besides the Baker and his Wife, there is one other character with whom the audience can identify - a Narrator, affably played by John Amato. But there's a ho-hum quality to several performances, as if they were in a show by Disney instead of Sondheim.

Admittedly, Sondheim's musicals are ferociously difficult to get right. And, Cockpit's production comes close, with musical director Elizabeth Fink's pit orchestra meriting special commendation.

But it takes more than hitting the correct notes to make a Sondheim show sing. You also have to find the correct tone. "Into the Woods" contrasts the sweetness of fairy tales with an overall mood of wry irony. Those qualities are in short supply here, and without them, the warmth at the end feels merely tepid.

Due to renovations to the theater where Cockpit usually performs, "Into the Woods" is being presented in the John E. Ravekes Theatre on the Dundalk campus of the Community College of Baltimore County, 7200 Sollers Point Road. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Tickets are $15. Call 410-918-4023.

New schedule at Mechanic

There have been a few changes at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre - some of which will show up on stage and others behind the scenes. On stage, the touring production of the current Broadway revival of "Annie Get Your Gun" has been added to the season. The Irving Berlin musical replaces "Amadeus," which indefinitely postponed its national tour.

"Annie Get Your Gun" is expected to star Tom Wopat, repeating his Broadway role of Frank Butler, Annie Oakley's rival and love interest. The title role has not yet been cast. The musical will run April 3-8.

There have also been two date shifts in the subscription lineup. The musical, "Cinderella," has shortened its run to Dec. 19-24, and "Ragtime" will arrive here a month earlier than originally announced; its new dates are Feb. 27-March 4.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Jujamcyn Productions, which has booked and managed the Mechanic since 1995, is now part of SFX Entertainment. The entertainment conglomerate, which had been a half-owner of Jujamcyn since 1997, purchased the company in May. The world's largest producer and promoter of live entertainment, SFX presents theatrical series and productions in 55 cities across the United States and Canada.

The SFX clout should further increase Baltimore's chances of securing quality touring shows and pre-Broadway productions, according to Mike Brand, regional executive of SFX and former executive director of Jujamcyn Productions.

Brand, who continues as executive director of the Mechanic, said patrons will probably not notice any changes in the running of the theater. "It's the same people, the same commitment," he said.

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