Tall Tales Told in the Woods

With the premiere of Into the Woods at the Broward Center, the Tri-Counties area welcomes another season with Slow Burn Theatre Company. South Florida Theater Magazine attended the opening night of the performance to a near soldout crowd, and after watching the fairy tale unfold, it is understood why this company seems to have such a strong place in their local community, and greater. Overall, despite the following critiques, I thoroughly enjoy watching this company’s productions.

When I first began reviewing musicals for the area, Slow Burn’s Little Shop of Horrors was my first assignment, and it blew me away. Since then, I have covered their productions of Mary Poppins and Newsies, making Into the Woods my fourth. Since Seymour, I have learned to appreciate local productions in a new light, however flawed they can be due to a lack of big Broadway budgets. In short, Into the Woods by Slow Burn was a thought-provoking piece that lifted a certain weight off my shoulders exiting the Amaturo Theater, appreciating the opportunity to share the message with my company, also weightless.

Into The Woods – Ralph Meitzler, Giselle Watts – Photo by Larry Marano

It was my first time experiencing Into the Woods, and I wasn’t dismayed at seeing a fresh take on familiar tales after seeing the program filled with character names like: Cinderella (Kimmi Johnson Grimes); Lucinda (Kate Stenzel); Florinda (Kristi Rose Mils); Little Red Riding Hood (Giselle Watts); Jack (Luis-Pablo Garcia); and Rapunzel (Mikayla Cohen). The new additions to the fairytale roster, crafted originally by the great Stephen Sondheim, are characters with generic names: Baker’s Wife (Melissa Whitworth); Baker (Ben Liebert); Witch (Jeni Hacker); Cinderella’s Prince/Wolf (Ralph Meitzler); Rapunzel’s Prince (Sergi Robles); Narrator/Mysterious Man (Matthew W. Korinko); Cinderella’s Mother/Granny/Giant (Elizabeth Dimon); Cinderella’s Stepmother (Jinon Deeb); Jack’s Mother (Patti Gardner); Cinderella’s Father (Michael Materdomini); Milky White (Aaron Atkinson); and Steward (Michael Harper).

First, the good. The story. The story was delivered mostly through song as the characters fluttered in and out of the wooden stage, key moments addressed by particular actions. Cinderella once stopped at centerstage, pointed toward and upward at the crowd, exclaiming that a great beanstalk was growing in the distance. This use of offstage mechanics was perhaps my favorite element of this production by Slow Burn. Faced with the impossible task of making a giant, the cast simply cowered in one corner of the stage as they stared toward and upward at stage right, where the giant was looming just out of the audience’s eye. Bodies thrown from one corner of the stage to the next, and the only indicator was the movement of the eyes and heads of the cast. I think that’s superb. My second favorite aspect of the show was the live score, performed behind the woods by real musicians. The music and vocals from the cast, also impressive. Hacker’s moments as the Witch were legendary.

Into The Woods – Jeni Hacker, Melissa Whitworth, Ben Liebert -Photo by Larry Marano

Now, what I think could be improved upon. The opening sequence, or the Prologue, was overwhelmingly confusing for me as a first time viewer. Three separate scenes were unfolding for the audience at the same time: Cinderella; the Baker and his wife; and Jack. The exchanges in performance, the call and answer between these scenes, only separated by a mere foot or two, were disorienting. What I did know is that each of these characters were drawn to these allegorical “woods” for some particular reason or another. After their individual exchanges occurred between one another after the opening scene, only then was I able to decipher the plot beginning to unfold in front of everyone. My last critique concerns the company’s missteps as it concerns making their cues for the lighting. Multiple times within the night, cast members missed their marks for the lighting. A prince would enter onto the stage, preparing to sing “Agony,” the lights would go out except a spotlight, designated for him, and he would not be in it. Simply a toe or a foot. At its worst moment of misdirection, the cast were beaten by the Witch in dramatic cues and spotlights before the end of the first act, and almost every cue was missed, the Baker seemingly lunging across the stage for the spotlight instead of highlighting his motion of a lunge. I note this because it was clearly not intended to happen in that way, and it was stark.

That being said, this is an absolutely incredible performance, and you need to make it to the Broward Center of Performing Arts in Ft. Lauderdale to see it this weekend before it closes. You can grab tickets here at Slow Burn Theatre Company’s website (https://www.slowburntheatre.org/matilda-1).

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