Kim Carson in the Arden Theater's "Into the Woods," that runs through July 10. Source: Arden Theater

Review: A Sumptuously Rustic 'Into The Woods' at the Arden Theater

Lewis Whittington READ TIME: 3 MIN.

Terrance J. Nolen has directed a slate from Stephen Sondheim's canon at the Arden Theater – "A Little Night Music," "Pacific Overtures," "Passion," "Sunday in the Park With George," "Assassins," and his twice-revived, exquisite production of "Sweeney Todd," with immersive Gothic atmospherics and illuminating chamber music approach to the show's brilliant score.

In contrast, Nolen's approach to "Into the Woods" is without the trappings you might expect from the intertwining fairy stories from the Brothers Grimm (which include Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Little Red Riding Hood), but it's just as effective as it frames the score, with a fine ensemble of actor-singers and chamber music sextet delivering Sondheim's brilliant score.

Lapine's book and Sondheim's lyrics throw these assorted fairy tale characters into a boiling pot of universal truths. Meanwhile, the timeless stories of self-discovery, scary journeys, and unhappy endings – the musical's core themes – have never sounded more relevant than they do today.

At almost three hours, James Lapine's book and Sondheim's lyrics inescapably write themselves into corners, with the show's dizzying plot points getting lost in the weeds. Nolen keeps everything in motion, even as he sustains the critical theatrical and character arcs.

Among the many highlights is a thunderbolt performance by Kim Carson as the Witch, who is both operatic and sublime in powerhouse scenes with the songs "Last Midnight" and "Stay With Me."

In his Arden debut performance, as Jack, Ellis Gage's solo number "Giants in the Sky'" proves that he is a Sondheim singer natural, his silvery baritenor as precise as his acting.

Ben Dibble portrays the Baker with his touchingly tender baritone as he learns fatherly life lessons through loss. Katherine Fried's and Dibble have terrific vocal chemistry in their antagonistic duets.

Alia Munsch as Cinderella enchants most as her dreams disappear, and her steeled silver soprano cuts through the storms. Grace Ellis Solomon brings both comedy and gravitas to her Little Red Riding Hood with a steely vocalese.

The forest of troubles clears for the moving quartet, with Sondheim's elegiac "No One is Alone," a quartet for Cinderella and Red Riding Hood, and the Baker and Jack, in which they console each other at the musical's darkest moment. Then the full cast is reunited for the equally stirring "Children with Listen."

There's slate of strong performance by triple threats Vanessa Sterling, Brenson Thomas, and Garrick Vaughan, who all pop into different characters (and singing voices), not to mention Prince, Wolf, Grandma, Cow, and, with the flick of a diva fan, those evil sisters.

Costume designer Levonne Lindsay creates a Cinderella's ball gown that is a yellowing cascade of tulle, as well as a terrific effect: As the Witch swoops over the stage, half bent over, before she loses her powers, she emerges as a beautiful earth mother in a lace gown.

James Kronzer's spare set pieces, in tandem with Jorge Arroyo's forestry sculpting shadows and dreams, clears the path into the uniqueness of the score compared to many Sondheim shows. Here the late composer/lyricist shows a certain restraint, a more nuanced lyrical cycle, as he lays off overripe rhyme schemas.

Delivering the score's organic beauty are the six musicians. In a loft above the action, the translucence and drive of this sextet is led by Conductor Ryan Touhey. His orchestrations masterfully detail one of Sondheim's most thought-provoking scores. The detailing and the precision with the singers are first rate.

"Into the Woods'' continues through July 10 at Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd St. Philadelphia PA. For more information go to visit the Arden Theatre Company website.

by Lewis Whittington

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.

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