When Slow Burn Theatre Company’s artistic director/choreographer Patrick Fitzwater welcomed the audience to his inaugural show of their 2023/2024 season, he asked how many of us had seen INTO THE WOODS before. Most hands went up. Obviously, Stephen Sondheim’s (music and lyrics) and James Lapine’s (book) two-time, Tony-award winner (for both new production and best musical revival) had a large South Florida fan base. Could Broward Center’s local regional professional theater live up to the memories of traveling shows or even Broadway? Fitzwater seemed to think so, going so far as to call this production their “most beautiful show ever”… though you might recall their last season boasted one groundbreaking blockbuster after another.
But you know what? I think he may be right. My friend and I kept turning to each other with big smiles – both during and after the show – in absolute wonder at how much we were enjoying every minute. The fairy tale ambiance hits you the second you are directed to your seat, accompanied by the sweet sounds of chirping birds. Once seated, you’re instantly immersed in the majestic stage where a triptych of old storybook-style interiors are framed by artistically arranged tree branches.
The Amaturo Theater’s expansive, glowing fantasy background ebbs and flows with drama and intimate moments thanks to set design by Kelly Tighe, prop design by Matthew W. Korinko, lighting design by Clifford Spulock and sound by Patrick Fitzwater. With each change in mood majestically underscored by conductor and keyboardist James Mablin and his LIVE (but hidden behind a back curtain) ten-piece orchestra.
Then there are the amazing voices of the talented cast – some Slow Burn regulars, some well-known Florida stars, others new to the company – but all of the highest caliber who excel in what I consider the truly difficult task of singing different lines, all together at once (as in the “Into the Woods” prologue). And time and time again, rousing us to spirited applause at their incredible solos.
It’s no wonder that these Sondheim songs have become American songbook standards. Still, such soulful, deep, but also often sharp and wittily satirical verses resonate more strongly when performed in context. Sondheim’s lyrics alternate from sweetly sensitive to cynically harsh. They are a far remove from Disneyfied versions, rather hearkening back to the Brothers Grimm for more down-to-earth views of human nature.
Every character who ventures “into the woods” is wistfully wishing for something better, and willing to leave the relative safety of hearth and home to get there. As the saying goes: Nothing ventured, nothing gained. But good intentions, or sticking to the straight and narrow path, can’t always prevent unanticipated dangers or getting lost or trapped in the woods of life. Merrily skipping Little Red Riding Hood (who childishly can’t resist eating most of grandma’s goodies along the way) is swayed by Mr. Wolf. Knowing when and whom to trust is a hard lesson for us all, especially the young. Though Red’s innocent illusions are shattered, she does come out stronger for the experience.
Recent BFA in Music Theatre graduate Giselle Watts very much looks the part of a little girl in a red cape and white tights but her voice has the deep timbre of a seasoned pro. Ralph Meitzler, as the Wolf, exhibits just the right amounts of charm and menace in his “Hello, Little Girl” address, and I was quite shocked to discover he also plays the part of Cinderella’s Prince. Kudos to costume and puppet designer Rick Pena. (Pena also created the highly active Milky White cow, movingly manipulated by Aaron Atkinson, along with several “flying” birds.)
And what’s a fairy tale compilation without some version of Cinderella? Local favorite Kimmi Johnson Grimes, as Cinderella, plaintively joins her Mother Elizabeth Dimon in “Cinderella at the Grave.” (Dimon also voices Granny and the Giant.) Perhaps Cinderella should have kept on running from the prince for he turns out (I must say realistically) to be a “player” and so there is no innocent happily-ever-after. Though, perhaps even better, Cinderella finally exhibits some moxie and both she and her somewhat cowed stepfamily continue to reap the benefits of a higher station in life.
Center stage – both physically, in their quaint bakery, and to the storyline – are the Baker and his Wife. The couple yearn for a child but can’t conceive because the Baker inherited the curse of his parents for stealing greens from the ugly witch’s garden next door. If their story sounds familiar, it does involve the same witch who keeps long-tressed Rapunzel (Mikayla Cohen) captive in a high tower. She’s eventually rescued by her Prince (who’s also Cinderella’s Prince’s brother). Comedically portrayed by Sergi Robles, he’s the second half of a delightful, ongoing shtick that occurs whenever these two privileged and clueless royals bump into one another.
Into the Woods gleeful baker and wife
The Baker and his Wife, though living amidst an assemblage of popular fairy tale figures, are the play’s only original characters, having no source in the Brothers Grimm. So it should come as no surprise that their personalities appear most contemporary and relatable … in their anguished yearning for a child, and in the way they react to one another – both while bickering and offering loving support. When tasked to go against their better instincts and steal from children to obtain their heart’s deepest desire, they exhibit all the conflicting emotions and self-centered delusional arguments of the weak yet well-intentioned.
Powerhouse singers/actors Ben Liebert as the often hapless Baker and Melissa Whitworth as his take-charge Baker’s Wife are marvelously cast and a pleasure to listen to, whether in solos or among the company. Their quest to find “a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold” forms the glue of the entire story. Helped along by our favorite storyteller and Slow Burn’s co-founder Matthew W. Korinko, who alternates between the parts of Narrator (standing clean-cut on the side) to Mysterious Man (appearing center stage out of nowhere, and in shaggy-haired disguise).
Into the Woods Patti Gardner, Jack and cow.
Difficult choices the poor must make for survival are amply illustrated in the relationship of Jack (of beanstalk fame) and his Mother, realistically enacted by young and already-making-waves in our theater community, Luis-Pablo Garcia, and award-winning veteran, Patti Gardner. Jack tugs at our heartstrings when singing to his beloved pet cow, “I Guess This Is Goodbye.” And exhibits all the starry-eyed wonder of youth in “Giants in the Sky.”
I’ve left the shining central star of the show for last because once she appears, she owns the spotlight – both in her stunning portrayal and as impetus for the musical’s action. Who can ignore an evil, ugly Witch who wields a magical rod that can remotely land painful blows at will? Jeni Hacker fans will flock to see the multiple Carbonell-winning local superstar in this lead role that showcases all her talents. And tugs at our heartstrings, despite her evil manipulations. For she is also the lonely mother who pleads “Stay With Me” to Rapunzel, feels fire and brimstone in her “Last Midnight” solo, and joins the company in the powerful Finale, “Children Will Listen.”
Into the Woods Jeni Hacker