City Springs Theatre Company’s Into the Woods, one of the first major theatrical productions here in more than a year, certainly qualifies as an event. As a fresh take on the Stephen Sondheim comic-tragic musical, however, it never really finds its magic.
The show, running through Sunday (July 18), does boast an impressive ensemble. Some members have serious Atlanta credits; a few have worked on Broadway. All suffer from uncertain direction.
The fourth–season opener from City Springs Theatre Company will probably be welcomed by theater-hungry patrons ready to go out again. This is the company’s first show under executive director Natalie Delancey, previously the company’s managing director. She replaced Brandt Blocker who resigned unexpectedly earlier this year.
Into the Woods, using fairy-tale characters — Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel — begins innocently enough before rearing its darker side. The 1987 show, which has Sondheim’s music and lyrics, and James Lapine’s book, won three Tony awards and is one of the composer’s more accessible works.
Jeff McKerley as our Narrator moves the show along, with Billy Harrigan Tighe and Felicia Boswell as the Baker and his Wife, who’ve been cursed to live childless lives, which sets them on a quest. The sizable cast includes Haden Rider as Jack (in a wig that seems to be its own character), Ingrid Cole as his Jack’s Mother, Jalise Wilson as Little Red Riding Hood, Leigh Ellen Jones as Cinderella, Rayven Bailey as Rapunzel, Colt Prattes as Cinderella’s Prince and the divine Terry Burrell as the Witch. It’s an impressive gathering.
Kayce Grogan-Wallace directs. She’s a marvelous performer who won a Suzi Bass Award for her work in Actor’s Express’ 2018 The Color Purple and appeared in City Springs’ Hairspray, a 2019 season highlight and the best musical the company’s done. This is her directorial debut, however, and a show of this scale and scope seems an unfortunate first outing.
This Into the Woods feels off, from the pacing (including a first act that really drags) to the different levels of performances. Some of the actors are admirably restrained; others play for the theater’s back rows. Grogan-Wallace lets some of them ham it up so much it becomes annoying. And, in working with musical supervisor Chris Brent Davis, music director S. Renee Clark and the orchestra, she hurries some numbers. It’s jarring to see needlessly drawn-out comedic moments followed by iconic songs that feel almost buried.
The most memorable of the players are Tighe as Jack, Jones as Cinderella, Wilson as Little Red Riding Hood and Burrell as the Witch. Wilson’s Little Red could show more depth, but she’s a skilled musical performer. On the flip side, Prattes as Cinderella’s Prince, is way too broad even though the role calls for some of that. His “Agony” duet with Benjamin H. Moore (more adept as Rapunzel’s Prince) is often hard to watch. And as excellent as Burrell is, her rendition of the showstopping “Stay With Me” needs better direction. It comes and goes without having the punch it should.
Halfway through this Into the Woods, I couldn’t help but think of Justin Anderson’s smart, affecting 2016 version at Aurora Theatre, where the performers — including Natasha Drena, Wendy Melkonian and Diany Rodriguez — seemed much more in sync. The beautifully staged 2011 Alliance Theatre version also crossed my mind.
Still, there are some isolated charms here — Boswell’s giddy “Moment in the Woods” and Burrell’s “Witch’s Lament” and “Last Midnight.” Act 2 improves in all aspects and by the time the characters sing “No One Is Alone,” the show gains some rhythm.
Paul Wonsek’s set is efficient enough, as the woods eventually become their own character and the costumes,credited to Broadway designer Susan Hilferty, are lovely. The specials effects are a bit cheesy, however, from birds on strings to a giant that plops onstage near the end.
I had several questions going into this production. Would COVID-19 be addressed? It wasn’t. Save for ushers and a few patrons, the theater was mask–free and not socially distanced. (Sandy Springs lifted its mask ban early last week, according to company rep Jennifer Wilkes.) Would the actors onstage look more like Atlanta, in the wake of last year’s New York Times article (“54% of the People. 12% of the Plays. Atlanta, Do We Have a Problem?”) and the town hall reckonings that followed? Yes, Into the Woods has a refreshingly racially mixed cast.
I also wondered how a theater company and its performers would respond to having an unexpected 18-month break. Despite a talented cast, the result feels like a theater company that has returned to work after a long layoff. City Springs is valuable to Atlanta’s theater scene, and it’s great to have its musicals back. It pains me to say this, but it can do better.