Thursday, January 29, 2015

DreamCatcher Theatre: Into the Woods (reviews)

IntoTheWoods-690x310DreamCatcher Theatre Company opened its production of Into the Woods at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts on January 22 2015.
…once upon a time, a baker and his wife were sent on a quest into the woods by a mysterious witch. Thrust into a world of magic and adventure, they find their story intertwined with a group of legendary characters including Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and a certain young man named Jack who has some very magical beans. Sondheim's brilliant lyrics and gorgeous music, paired with Lapine's captivating book, make this Tony Award-winning Broadway musical about wishes, chasing your dreams, and the importance of the stories we tell our children both magical and deeply touching.
Justin Fortunato directed a cast that included J.J. Caruncho, Arielle Jacobs, Tituss Burgess, Magan Dee Yantko, Bruno Vida, Annemarie Rosano, Elizbeth Dimon, Jeni Hacker, Oscar Cheda, Christina Flores, Elaine Flores, Roland Rusinnek, Kelsey Flynn and Annett Navarro.
Bill Hirschman reviewed for Florida Theater On Stage:
The new local production of Into The Woods by DreamCatcher Theatre and Theatre Up Close is so heartbreakingly uneven that it may bring Stephen Sondheim lovers close to tears. Long stretches are so skillfully and lovingly executed that you want to stand and cheer. Other passages fail to conquer this deceptively difficult work.
It’s a brave ambitious undertaking for a first production with the Arsht Center’s initiative to develop local companies. The Sondheim-James Lapine musical may be among their most frequently performed work, but it is devilishly complex and multi-layered. Certainly, DreamCatcher has spared no expense with 20 talented local and New York-based actors, a letter-perfect 11-piece orchestra plus evocative costumes, sets and lights.
When it all coalesces, it’s a delight, such as most of the 13-minute opening number in which the cast deftly and crisply limns a volume of fairy tale characters interacting in an intricate web of music and lyrics.
Equally exciting is listening to such assured solid performers as the lovely Arielle Jacobs (of Broadway’s Into The Heights) as the Baker’s Wife singing about the lessons she has learned during a dalliance with a prince in “Moments In The Woods.” Savor Annemarie Rosano as Cinderella realizing that her decision is not decide as Cinderella flees the Prince “On the Steps Of The Palace.” Or enjoy the adolescent certitude of determined Magan Dee Yantko as Little Red Riding Hood celebrating new found knowledge after her run-in with a carnivorous Wolf. Or Carbonell nominee Bruno Vida (next to normal) enthusiastically describing Jack the Giant Killer’s adventures in the clouds.
They, along with most of the cast, have strong stage voices that clearly enunciate Sondheim’s tongue twisting lyrics and revel in his score.
…director Justin Fortunato has far more trouble clearly telling the story. Part of this is because Lapine wove so many stories together and then shoved them past the audience at a rapid clip... A triumph of the recent film was the clarity for first time visitors to the woods. But that doesn’t occur here even though Fortunato, a theatrical stalwart in Pittsburgh, has directed the show before.
But the serious problem here is the casting of Burgess… in the first act, Burgess’ performance as the old hag — hidden under a robe of rags, a wig of steel wool dreads and a half-mask from Party City – seems half-hearted. Then, liberated from the disguise in the second act to be revealed as a gorgeous fashion plate, Burgess isn’t playing a woman, he’s playing a bald gay man wearing a dress. Even if you buy that distracting interpretation, it’s a tamped down listless performance in which he sits down a lot.  And, worst of all, much of the score seems simply not in his register, or at least his falsetto cannot negotiate the challenging music.
J.J. Caruncho also plays the Baker, a central character invented by Lapine. With piercing eyes, a genial smile, shaved head and an isosceles triangle of a beard, he cuts a memorable figure and provides affable company. But he does not exude enough innate charisma to establish him in the first act as the unofficial center of the story. When the score is in his range, he does justice to the music. But in his two best songs, “No More” and “No One Is Alone,” he substitutes words spoken in anger or passion for sung notes. Once again, this robs the audience of two of the most moving melodies in the show.
But the rest of the cast is unassailable, especially Wayne LeGette as the Narrator/Mysterious Man, Laura Turnbull as Jack’s put-upon mother and Marina Perez as trilling Rapunzel. In the hilarious one-upmanship of dueling laments, Justin John Moniz is Cinderella’s Prince (and Red Riding Hood’s Wolf), and Matthew Janisse is Rapunzel’s Prince.
The woods designed by April Soroko are an appropriately intimidating environment complete with a 15-foot tower for Rapunzel. They are adequately lit by Bryan Kaschube but it drives you crazy to see someone snap on a blinding spotlight every time a character gets ready to sing. At least, someone could bring it up subtly.
Christine Dolen reviewed for The Miami Herald:
Actor J.J. Caruncho has been fond of dreamcatchers since he was a little boy.. So it’s no surprise that Caruncho and his sister Natalie picked the name DreamCatcher Theatre for their actor-driven company.  Their first big dream has now come to life in the Carnival Studio Theater at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. As co-artistic directors, the Miami-raised, New York-based siblings have pulled off an ambitious debut with a beautifully sung, well-acted production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods.
The technical and design aspects of the production are a mixed bag. April Soroko’s predominantly gray set economically conjures the woods, the Baker’s shop, Cinderella’s home and Rapunzel’s tower, though there’s no way anyone can climb up for a visit. Bryan Kaschube’s lighting design is good, but the cues aren’t hit crisply; ditto with Rich Szczublewski’s sound design. Alberto Arroyo’s costumes are fairy-tale fanciful, but the wigs (whatever their cost) look like something from a Halloween costume shop.
DreamCatcher certainly hasn’t stinted on assembling an impressive cast. Director Justin Fortunato has big talents and big voices to work with, and he makes the most of the actors’ many gifts.
Before the show’s opening, the casting headline was that Tituss Burgess, with the blessing of the musical’s creators, would be the first male actor to play the Witch... As the under-a-curse Witch, he’s funny, commanding and conniving. Once the spell is reversed, though he may look like a contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Burgess plays it straight, as a mother suffering all sorts of losses. His acting is sharp and nuanced, and his voice, particularly on Stay With Me and Witch’s Lament, is glorious and haunting.
Across the boards, though, the performances are strong. As the Baker’s Wife, Arielle Jacobs, compelling in big musicals and intimate plays, is well-matched with J.J. Caruncho as the fatherhood-skittish Baker. Annemarie Rosano is a lovely, conflicted Cinderella. As her prince, Justin John Moniz (who also plays the ravenous Wolf) has the comic chops and huge voice to pull off Agony with Matthew Janisse as Rapunzel’s Prince. Marina Pires, turning the notes of Rapunzel’s theme into a siren song, finds the character’s comedy, frustration and postpartum craziness. Magan Dee Yantko is a sassy Little Red Riding Hood, and Bruno Vida has a breakout performance as Jack.
Wayne LeGette anchors the show as the Narrator and Mysterious Man, while fellow Florida actors Laura Hodos as Cinderella’s condescending stepmother, Laura Turnbull as Jack’s frustrated mom, Elizabeth Dimon as Granny and the voice of the Giant, and Jeni Hacker as Cinderella’s late mother enrich the company’s vocal mix.

The DreamCatcher Theatre Company production of Into the Woods plays at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts through February 15, 2015.

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