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vancouverplays review


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— Jennifer Suratos (The Baker's Wife), Christopher King (The Baker), Ryan Lino (Milky-White)

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim 
Book by James Lapine
Fighting Chance Productions
Jericho Arts Centre, 1675 Discovery St.
April 28-May 16

Into the Woods has been one of Stephen Sondheim’s most popular shows since its premiere in the 1980s. James Lapine’s book provides a clever pastiche of well known fairy tales (Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel), and Sondheim’s lyrics are as witty and sophisticated as any in his canon. His score, though, is difficult to sing and play—especially unmelodic even for a composer renowned for the un-hummability of his music.

The show’s challenge is generally very well met by Ryan Mooney’s Fighting Chance Productions company of 18 performers and five musicians. The size of this production is a reflection of Fighting Chance’s larger ambitions. Unlike the region’s other major non-Equity musical companies like Theatre Under the Stars (two shows a year) and Royal City Musical Theatre (one show), Mooney’s company has a six-show season scheduled for 2015-16: everything from world premieres to Cats.

A little company overreaching itself like this means some necessary compromises, though, which manifest themselves in this show. Into the Woods is staged in the Jericho Arts Centre, one of the least expensive rentals in the city and a friendly, intimate space. But, essentially a barn, it has serious acoustical issues. Director Mooney supplies his actors with head-mics so the dialogue and lyrics can be heard above the orchestra. But the combination of amplified sound, poor acoustics, and microphones cutting in and out or creating feedback makes for quite a few sonically frustrating moments.

These difficulties are magnified by Mooney’s in-the-round staging, which means you’re often staring at a performer’s back. I even had difficulty making out the spoken dialogue of the Narrator (Jack Strudwick) when I wasn’t able to read his lips.

Still, the rough edges of this production are part of its charm. There’s an awful lot to like in these woods.

The combination of blithe comedy and dark violence makes for an interesting mix. Little Red (Elise Sherwood) is casual and fearless, Cinderella (Caroline Buckingham) explains why she’s running away from the horny, hilarious Prince (Jason Cook), singing, “I’m afraid I was rude/Now I’m being pursued/But I’m not in the mood,” and Jack’s cow (Ryan Lino) is an audience favourite.  At the same time the script underlines the grim in Grimm. After the happy endings of act one, many of the major characters die—violently—in the second act.

At the centre of the plot is an odd little family drama. A Baker (Christopher King) and his Wife (Jennifer Suratos) want to have a child but first must undo the curse of a Witch (Sarah Wolfman-Robichaud) by fulfilling various tasks that bring them into contact with the fairy tale characters. Real-life husband and wife King and Suratos drive the play nicely. He’s an earnest, serious and rather sexist Baker; she’s a proto-feminist Wife, daring and independent, though with unhappy results. Suratos also has one of the strongest voices in the ensemble.

The stars of this show—and I’m guessing this is true of most productions—are Cook, who doubles as the Prince and Wolf, and Wolfman-Robichaud as the Witch.  Cook is an opera singer with a rich baritone voice and larger-than-life acting style that works especially well for the ultra-vain Prince. His duets with Rapunzel’s Prince (Zach Wolfman) are among the highlights of the show. Wolfman-Robichaud brings style, energy, and great vocal chops to the role of the Witch, the play’s most dynamic character.

Olivia Lang as Rapunzel and Tristin Wayte as Jack’s mother, among others, also do very good work. Kudos to designers Cathy Wilmot and Lynn Wong for their many colourful costumes, and to conductor/keyboardist Angus Kellett and his musicians for not getting lost in the deep woods of Sondheim’s music.

Jerry Wasserman


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