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Theater Review: "Into the Woods" at JCC CenterStage 

Mounting a stage production shortly after the release of a lavish, big-budget film adaptation of the same material is always a tricky proposition. On the one hand, the publicity surrounding a movie release brings in a lot of new eyes, attracting people who are curious to see what the original material might look like. But you have to please those who've been drawn in by the film, and you run the risk of falling short of their expectations. After all, a budget of millions of dollars buys a lot of production value. It's enough to make some theater directors steer clear of shows that have been adapted into films, at least until some of the attention dies down. So I was a little surprised to hear Ralph Meranto, director of the JCC CenterStage production of "Into the Woods," say that the film's release was what convinced him to bring the musical to the JCC.

During an audience Q&A following Sunday's sold-out matinee performance, Meranto explained that he wanted to stage "Into the Woods" for some time, and once it seemed clear that the film would be diverging considerably from its source material, he decided that the time was right. It was his desire to present audiences with an opportunity to see the musical as it was meant to be seen: on the stage. And by that measurement, he's succeeded remarkably well. The result is an effective, straightforward production that doesn't stray too far from the path set by previous presentations.

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's revisionist fairy tale weaves together the stories of Cinderella (Katie Weber), Jack (Christopher Salvaggio) and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood (Adriana Scalice), and Rapunzel (Lani Toyama), and combines them with an original story about a childless Baker (Eric Williamson) and his wife (Sarah Peters). The couple learn that their inability to have a child is a result of a curse placed on their home by The Witch (Janine Mercandetti) who resides next door. If they want to reverse the curse, they must bring her four items: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a shoe as pure as gold. The couple sets out into the nearby woods in search of the items, crossing paths with the other characters, who end up affecting one another's stories in unexpected ways.

The first act of the musical closely follows the course set by the fairy tales we know and love. By the time intermission comes around, the characters' wishes have been granted, and the "evil" characters have been duly punished. But it's the considerably more complicated second act that has made "Into the Woods" one of my favorite musicals. (And it should be noted that there is indeed a second act -- there seemed to be confusion among the audience at the performance I attended, many of whom seemed unaware that there was more to the story after the happy endings had been achieved, and several people seated around me appeared to have left after Act One.)

The intermission signals a shift in tone, and in Act Two the show explores what happens to the characters after their dreams come true. As they discover "happily ever after" doesn't automatically bring fulfillment, the characters face disappointment, infidelity, and death, things become more murky and unclear. It's dark, it's messy, and I love it.

The CenterStage production follows the book of the 2002 Broadway revival, which adds some material to the show, including an entire song, "Our Little World," a cameo from the Three Little Pigs, and the appearance of a second wolf during the "Hello Little Girl" (among some other minor changes throughout). They're interesting additions, though none add much to the show.

Sondheim is always tricky, and here he weds complex themes to melodies as gnarled and twisty as the musical's woodsy setting, but the entire cast acquaint themselves well with the material. Sarah Peters gives a lovely performance in the complicated role of the Baker's Wife, and Adriana Scalice makes for a fantastic Little Red. The Witch is the showiest role by far, and Janine Mercandetti does scenery-chewing quite well, even if she's sometimes a little too referential to Bernadette Peters' iconic performance. Maybe it was the heavy costuming, but she feels looser and more comfortable in the role post-transformation.

Throughout, this production adds a lot in the way of broad humor, which works fine in the first act but sticks out considerably in the second. I understand the desire to add some levity, but since there's already a major shift in tone between the acts, adding extra-jokey line deliveries contributes to an occasional sense of tonal whiplash. The scenic and costume designs stick with the classic storybook feel, right down to the fact that the witch's cloak incorporates the alphabet on its border. It's a nice touch.

Even though I was hoping to see more risk-taking, fidelity is what this production of "Into the Woods" is after, and it's exceptionally well-done, delivering a delightful staging of a beloved musical classic.

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