Dare to Defy Productions beckons the imagination with its stark, minimalist production of composer Stephen Sondheim and librettist James Lapine’s 1987 musical dramedy “Into the Woods,” but the attempt doesn’t coalesce.
Presented at the Victoria Theatre under the direction of Mathys Herbert, this “Into the Woods” appears to be pulling in different directions with musical awkwardness and structural unpreparedness resting underneath the surface. Part of the problem lies in the odd conceptual atmospherics (there are no woods in these “Woods”) which confines the action within an ominous, nondescript locale with columns, tattered draperies, candelabras, and a large clock accented by an array of baskets, boxes, cabinets, suitcases, trunks, and trinkets signifying a cluttered attic or an abandoned house. However, this impressively detailed creation, attractively designed by Ray Zupp, suggests a setting more appropriate for Sondheim’s “Follies,” his beautifully melancholy 1971 musical about chorus girls reuniting one last time on the stage of a soon-to-be-demolished theater. Perhaps if Herbert opened the show with his cast taking the stage as random individuals eager to put on “Into the Woods” in a dilapidated setting instead of what seems like ghosts or mannequins merely being awakened in the dark by a spooky stranger waving a flashlight it would have made for a more effective transition into the tale, especially to avoid alienating newbies unfamiliar with the show’s foundation.
As the musical’s insightful, thought-provoking plot weaves an introspective, profound course through the desires and regrets of multiple fairy tale characters, particularly stressing the importance of community, sacrifice and survival, the players run the gamut from admirable to ambiguous. Considering the strengths of the cast – a fantastic conglomeration of actors from Wright State University, Sinclair Community College, Dayton Playhouse, Dayton Theatre Guild, Playhouse South, and more – issues of cohesion wouldn’t appear to be a concern but that isn’t the case. Perhaps some members needed time to find or fine-tune their character arcs or simply become more comfortable with the score. Sondheim isn’t easy, and there were many missed cues on opening night, orchestra included. And in terms of musicianship, I’m still wondering why Mimi Klipstine, offering a terrifically commanding and emotionally grounded portrayal of the Witch, was told to bring the gorgeous “Children Will Listen” to a slow, terrible halt before the finale?
If only this production featured more surprising, inspired, character-conscious moments of pure exhilaration specifically evident in Evan Benjamin’s thrilling rendition of “Giants in the Sky,” a knockout example of attacking an incredibly descriptive lyric with all the expressive astuteness one can muster (while filling the space!) in order for the audience to completely immerse themselves in every ounce of the journey presented. Thanks to Benjamin’s absolutely radiant breakthrough performance, the trepidation and joy within Jack’s life-changing beanstalk journey is a truly dynamic highlight. Along with Benjamin and Klipstine, estimable work extends to Zupp in a sweetly understated turn as the cursed yet determined Baker longing to be a father while coping with his past, a spunky Tori Kocher as Little Red Riding Hood, a regally vain Amy Askins as Cinderella’s Stepmother, pretty soprano Jackie Darnell as humorous, sheltered Rapunzel, Mackensie Vonderbrink as Cinderella’s conceited stepsister Florinda, and the quiet strength of Zoot Theatre Company puppeteer Eric Arntz as Jack’s faithful pet cow Milky White.
In addition to Zupp, Herbert’s commendable artistic team includes lighting designer Sammy Jelinek (certainly bringing her evocative expertise to “Last Midnight”), costumer Carolyn McDermott (particularly dressing Natalie Sanders in a lovely silver and gold gown as Cinderella), puppet builder Danielle Robertson, and sound designer David Meyer. Also, Herbert’s decision to showcase the vengeful Giant (intimidatingly voiced by Tia Seay) as a shadow puppet is inspired.
Dare to Defy doesn’t overreach with “Into the Woods,” but if given a few more days or midnights this show could have ascended to greater heights.
“Into the Woods” continues today at 2 and 8 p.m. at the Victoria Theatre, 138 N. Main St., Dayton. Act One: 85 minutes; Act Two: 60 minutes. Tickets are $25-$50. For tickets or more information, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit www.ticketcenterstage.com.