With its inaugural production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Into the Woods,” which opened June 6 in the New Phoenix Theatre to an ecstatic crowd, the Second Generation Theatre has made an earth-shaking noise.
Its version of Sondheim’s dark mutation of classic fairy-tale tropes, directed with keen attention to detail by Chris Kelly and performed by a phenomenal cast of newcomers and vets, takes us dangerously deep into the strange thicket of Sondheim’s imagination. After almost three hours in this alternate universe, so powerfully rendered by SGT’s cast and design team, we emerge into the real world with a renewed faith in the fairy-tale powers of the theater.
The 1986 show, which ranks on most serious theater students’ Top 5 lists, has not seen a Buffalo production since 1991, when SummerFare Theatre (now MusicalFare) put it on. (The Dramatis Personae Theatre troupe mounted a production in East Aurora in 2002.)
Its first act is a self-contained adventure in which our favorite childhood figures join forces on a journey into the titular woods and emerge completely transfigured. The faint of heart could leave at intermission – though I wouldn’t recommend it – and be completely satisfied.
Sondheim’s wry and sly humor is on full display in the first act, in which we meet a cast of characters that includes a bumbling young Jack (he of the Beanstalk), a revenge-obsessed Little Red Riding Hood and her lascivious lupine pursuer, a childless baker and his wife and a witch intent on reclaiming her youth and beauty at all costs.
But Sondheim saves the thornier parts of his story for the second act, in which the moral compass of the show spins out of control and all our Disney definitions of right, wrong and happiness meet their ignominious end.
Given the high level of performances across the board, it’s difficult to know where to begin. As the witch, Loraine O’Donnell navigates Sondheim’s manic score capably while communicating a visceral sense of menace on the blood-curdling “Last Mightight” and other songs. Bobby Cooke approaches the baker, perhaps the show’s most emotionally complex character, from just the right angle, bringing out all his vulnerability and charm. Jenn Stafford is marvelous as the baker’s wife on “Moments in the Woods” and elsewhere. Kelly Copps’ Cinderella is believably earthbound.
Arin Lee Dandes brings a devilish flair to her Little Red Riding Hood. She knocks the audience out with “I Know Things Now” and earns big laughs in her comic dealings with almost every other character. But the comic highlights of the show come from Steve Copps and Jacob Albarella as a pair of hapless Prince Charmings whose exchanges have all the ease and humor of a veteran vaudeville routine. And Eric Rawski’s expressions, as the show’s lone bovine character, are priceless.
Sondheim’s music for this piece is characteristically challenging, departing on flights of dissonance that seem in exact accordance with the confusion its wandering characters feel and occasionally settling on beautiful if fleeting melodies. For any performer, the score is a nightmarish prospect, but every last member of this cast is up to the task.
What’s perhaps most remarkable about the production is how well it works in the New Phoenix’s ad-hoc thrust stage configuration, a feat resulting primarily from Kelly’s meticulous direction and also from Cooke’s lovely choreography.
The only nitpick I had during a Sunday matinee was Alana Graber’s violin, which sometimes went unintentionally sharp amid the otherwise fine playing of Allan Paglia’s orchestra. But even that didn’t seem entirely out of place in Sondheim’s perfectly plotted morality tale, in which the sheet music of our expectations doesn’t always match up with the sour notes of the actual performance.
The lessons embedded in “Into the Woods” are many, and worth repeating for adults and teens alike. This show is a scary sort of adventure for theatergoers, actors and characters. But like any worthwhile adventure into dark and unfamiliar territory, that scariness carries major rewards.
What: “Into the Woods”
When: Through June 23
Where: New Phoenix Theatre, 95 Johnson Park
Tickets: $20 to $25
Info: 206-4964 or www.secondgenerationtheatre.com