REVIEW: ‘The Woods’ Are Alive with the Sound of Perfection at Centre Stage

“Into the Woods” at Centre Stage. Photo by Wallace Krebs

BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC

The moment every Sondheim fanatic in the Upstate has finally arrived – the opening of “Into the Woods” at Centre Stage.

And this splendid, dazzling production is worth its weight in golden eggs. If that came out wrong, that’s this reviewer’s highest rating,

I have seen a number of local productions of this, to put it lightly, “challenging” Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical and each one has contained wonderful elements here and there, but this professional production is a tender, enchanting full-package onslaught by a Lady Giant ass-kicking cast.

The plot meshes myriad characters from various fairy tales as they intersect on their journeys in the forest, complete their tasks and live Happily Ever After. The imaginative theorizing happens in act two when the consequences of having their wishes fulfilled turn to happily Never after, and a thrilling adventure that dispenses with any rules of classic literary conflict on who lives and who perishes.

Our unlikely hero is a Baker (Greenville actor/singer Luke Browder who is in his prime here) and has affable chemistry (“It Takes Two”) with the actor/director that plays the Baker’s Wife, Paige ManWaring (who simply has never sounded better in the desperation in her “Maybe They’re Magic”!), as the barren couple who do a lot of baking without having something in their own oven. But through no fault of their own, as their house has been cursed by a witch, played by none other than Taylor Marlatt.

Marlatt doesn’t step on stage very often as the company’s Marketing & Development director, but when she does take note. Even through a prosthetic mask and makeup, she delivers a rousing, humorous hag in the “Prologue” (in a lower timbre) the patter lyric rap about her garden, greens, magic beans and the fertility curse. And after a colorful live transformation, she thrives in gorgeous ballads like her heartbreaking “Stay With Me.”

The incredible Brady Coyle-Smith is genuinely charming and happy-go-lucky as the boy Jack (A Carolina Curtain Call Award nomination?) who is not the brightest kid in the village and trades for a few magic beans for his bovine pal Milky Cow, a hilariously-dedicated Matthew Quattlebaum (who doubles as the Prince’s Steward) and his cow prop that’s all bones and utters and no legs. Coyle-Smith’s “I Guess This Is Goodbye” when they are ultimately separated elicited plenty of awwwwwwwwws on opening night.

Beth Martin, whose dramatic work I witnessed in “Death and the Maiden” last season, is stunning as Cinderella. Whether in rags scrubbing a floor and being taunted by her cruel stepsisters – Mary Evan Giles and Sarah Greene as Lucinda and Florinda provide marvelous comedic fodder, especially in those dark spectacles – or traipsing through the woods in her ball gown and one heel, Martin’s vocal elegance and delicate demure is breathtaking in “On the Steps of the Palace” and “No One Is Alone.”

Arleen Black, who was a hoot in last year’s “Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” is Jack’s Mother, and plays another string independent woman, but sings a significantly different style in this show…and beautifully.

In the roles of Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel are two young ladies I have been following since their college productions: Bethany Mansfield and Kate Riedy, respectively.

Mansfield (Anderson University) has youth and petite-ness, and a robust, powerful persona and voice to match. Her eardrum-piercing squawking squeal when her red cape is taken by the Baker, singing while holding her fresh-baked buns under her chin, and “I Know Things Now.” Brava Ms. Mansfield.

Riedy, a Converse College grad, is a rising triple-threat as well. Her Rapunzel is delightful, wispy and fresh, and she has mastered the unraveling of her custom 16-foot wig, created by Centre Stage’s resident hair and makeup guru Victor DeLeon, who also styled the stepsisters’ coiffed wigs, the witch’s blue wonder, and even a brown hairpiece for Jack, among others.

The narcissistic playboy Princes Cory Simmons (also the Wolf) and Sterling Street, in genial William Shatner-mode, lavish my favorite song “Agony,” and their reprise is ever funnier as they disclose they are dumping Cinderella and Rapunzel for Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.

The indelible Rod McClendon plays the Narrator who pops in and out of every possible entryway in the space, and strides double duty as the Mysterious Man. Rounding out the cast are Victoria Adams as the Wicked Stepmother (and Cinderella’s Mother) and Maurice Reed as Cinderella’s Father.

Director Christopher Rose in his largest production and budget to date is currently blazing a streak as the Upstate’s hottest director, having just helmed Best Production, Ensemble and a slew of cast acting awards at the Southeast Theatre Conference earlier this month for his adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet” for the Mill Town Players and will be taking his team to nationals for the first time.

This impeccable production has his signature gentle handling and pacing of the material in a pleasant, fluid atmosphere and tells the story in a most entertaining method.  

Rose and his cast milk every drop of humor from Lapine’s Tony-winning book, which is brilliant in its irreverence and the self-awareness of its characters who know they are in a fairy tale and that their happiness was obtained through deceit, theft, lust, malice or ignorance. But that only makes them more human.

The action occurs on Clint Walker’s adorable tidy, quaint forest set, dressed in vines and moss, which will make a most amiable backdrop for the theatre’s next Fringe play “Treehouse” opening March 26.

Music Director Julia Miller deserves much credit too for rallying her top-notch cast to thrive with this gruelling score in all of its glory and emotion, and the 30-verses of the song “Into the Woods” (who’ s counting but that melody stays with you for days).

“Into the Woods” is all about character and the rich cache of songs, but there are a couple of light movement numbers sweetly choreographed by Ms. Giles.

The gorgeous costumes for “Into the Woods” are by Stacey Hawks and Lighting is by Thom Seymour. Laura Nicholas is assistant director and Paul Kwok is Stage Manager.

I don’t know if the theatre has new body microphones or what, but the sound quality, the music tracks, and the effects in this show were pristine and clear, and frankly much better than any musical this season, courtesy of sound designer/tech Matt Polowczuk.

“Into the Woods” continues through April 7 at Centre Stage, 444 River St. in Greenville. For Tickets, call (864) 233-6733 or visit centrestage.org.

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