Second Generation Goes "Into The Woods"
by Anthony Chase
In the theater, wisdom is passed down from generation to generation. This was clearly on the minds of local actors Kelly Jakiel Copps, Kristin Bentley, and Arin Lee Dandes when, with a nod to tradition, they named their new theater company “Second Generation.” Like many theater artists before them, the youthful trio saw that by founding their own company, they could create opportunities to play some of the great roles alongside their more-seasoned elders.
This theatrical yearning took the first-time producers to a place where wishes are fulfilled, the land of fairytales. Their debut production is Into the Woods, the 1987 Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical in which a Baker and his Wife seek to undo a witch’s spell that has left them childless. That quest puts the infertile couple in contact with a variety of familiar fairytale characters, such as Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Cinderella, and Jack (of beanstalk fame), causing their stories to overlap and weave together.
The plot is complex. The score is notoriously difficult. The lyrics are intricate, clever, and unforgiving.
To choose such a challenging show seems to signal that this company wishes to be taken seriously. Second Generation intends to step up to the plate and play with the grownups as peers, not progeny, and they certainly succeed. Into the Woods bursts into the space of the New Phoenix Theatre with confident and joyful energy. The production sounds splendid and the central performances are notably strong.
Kelly Jakiel Copps makes an enchanting and charismatic Cinderella. Arin Lee Dandes is divine as distrustful and self-possessed Little Red Riding Hood. Among the musical theater veterans, Loraine O’Donnell (who was Red Riding Hood the last time Buffalo saw a professional Into the Woods, more than 20 years ago) is marvelously vivid as the cruel and cynical witch. Bobby Cooke and Jenn Stafford have wonderfully playful chemistry as the Baker and Baker’s Wife.
With direction by Chris Kelly, musical direction by Allan Paglia, and choreography by Cooke, this long show moves briskly and is consistently engaging. The “second generation” theme was nicely underscored by the presence of Mary McMahon, mother of Kelly Jakiel Copps, as Jack’s Mother; and Tammy Hayes McGovern, mother of local actress Eliza Hayes Maher, as Red Riding Hood’s Granny.
The opening night was appropriately buoyed aloft by the familiar euphoria that also lifts audiences to their feet at school plays or when an audience is heavy with actors. Here, at least in part, we were cheering for the continuation of a process of theatrical renewal that dates back to the Little Theater Movement of the 1920s, when community theaters across the nation began to turn professional.
This production, of course, is far closer to Provincetown Players than it is to school play, and a company of such pedigree, such immediate accomplishment, and such aspirations deserves more than the condescending jubilation that we offer to children and amateurs. They have earned a thoughtful appraisal. We might anticipate, after all, that more than put themselves on equal terms with their predecessors, Second Generation might aspire to surpass them. Attentive assessment early on can help guide the fledgling company toward longevity.
Indeed, while the production is ambitious, charming, and consummately entertaining, it is not devoid of miscalculation. It will take time for this company to fill the expanse of its own ambition. This production of Into the Woods is imbued with endless invention but occasionally slack calibration. In what might be over-eagerness to make a mark, Second Generation sometimes does not seem to trust the material. There are times to innovate and there are times to leave perfection alone.
Consider Milky White, the cow Jack trades for a handful of magic beans. Originally portrayed by a nondescript plaster statue, here master clown Eric Rawski embodies the beast, and he’s hilarious. To a fault.
This hilarity comes at the expense of pivotal scenes and relationships. Lyrics, already tentative on the opening night, were lost entirely in the bovine mayhem. For a musical in which lyrics are so important that parodies call it Into the Words, missing large passages is not good.
Yes, Rawski is a brilliant comic whose gifts have been deployed with genius in roles like Captain Hook. Here, his misplaced talent pulls focus. This is not a play about a cow.
In a town where actors notoriously paraphrase, we might hope that the new generation would be more attentive to words, rather than running roughshod over great scripts and indulging in tenuously motivated layers of “concept” and shtick for its own sake, common among those a generation older.
Indeed, words and phrasing are so vital to Into the Woods that there is specific logic even to the use of single and multiple syllable words. Consider the monosyllables used by Red Riding Hood: “The way is clear. The light is good. I have no fear, nor no one should.” And then, by contrast, the witch’s alliterative complexity: “He was robbing me, raping me, rooting through my rutabaga, raiding my arugula,” before she declares in perfect mono-syllables: “I should have cast a spell on him.”
“O for a muse of fire!”
“The queen, my lord, is dead.”
“You talk to birds?”
Such crisp statements are generally devised to be spoken deliberately and without hesitation. It is possible, alas, that the hectic rehearsal schedule needed to tame a wilderness like Into the Woods did not allow for such refinement. Or maybe such considerations were never on the radar at all.
In the great tradition of British pantomime, men in drag often play Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters. This works when irreverent subversion is the point of the evening. Second Generation has inexplicably chosen to cast one (not both) of the interchangeable sisters with a male actor. Again, the choice is good for a visual gag, but distorts and distracts us from the action. (And while handsome Matthew Iwanski does make one wicked stepsister, he might have been better deployed as a truly charming prince.)
The impulse towards panto-camp is pushed further in the portrayal of the Wolf, whose extreme ticks obscure lyrics, and in the presentation of the princes. The musical is scripted to present perfect Prince Charmings who fray under the demands of the fairytales that define them, but these portrayals push very hard. Dressed in Hugh Hefner smoking jackets that telegraph what these playboys are all about, they joke up the densely worded “Agony” duet beyond recognition. When Cinderella’s prince protests that he is charming, not sincere, he’s stating the obvious. Note that the princes’ second “Agony” duet, in which they sing about Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, is sung in simple, straightforward fashion, and is a complete delight.
Part of the genius of Into the Woods is that the script returns to the grotesqueries actually contained in the original fairytales—birds causing blindness, toes being cut off, blood in the glass slipper, girl and grandmother cut from the belly of a wolf—and reconnects us to the darker meaning and cultural value of these stories. Into the Woods is more Bruno Bettelheim than English pantomime. This particular play is diminished, not enhanced, by camp invention.
To be fair, the show is huge, and some choices, once set in motion, cannot be undone. (How can you ask Eric Rawski not to be funny?) And so, we must smile through the oddly conceived cow and stepsister, the oddly sleazy princes and the panto-wolf. We can try to process the substitution of the omniscient “Once upon a time” narrative voice with the narrative voice of detective fiction, even when the subversion of that iconic voice is a central plot twist. We can forgive the uneventful final exit of the Baker’s Wife—hauntingly unforgettable when Joanna Gleason, or Mary Gordon Murray, or any of a litany of past Baker’s Wives disappeared into the darkness as a giant’s thunderous steps approached, but here rendered with casual nonchalance.
On the other hand, more often, as these fairytale adventures were unfolding, we were watching magic in the making. Little touches reminded us of the formidable talent at hand. Gail Golden returns in triumph as Cinderella’s haughtily selfish and insensitive stepmother. Young Frankie Campofelice is adorable and affecting as Jack, the boy who innocently invites death and destruction. Mary Ryan gives an all-out performance as egregiously abused Rapunzel, and nails it.
To see Loraine O’Donnell as the witch is to see a seasoned pro at her craft. Self-assured and unfailing as she embodies her role, she speaks her words deliberately and commands the stage, boldly balancing the line between horror and comedy.
Having endured the suspenseful faceoff between the Bakers and a cow, during the final number, when the full company was assembled onstage, I was alarmed to see Cinderella buried in the back of the grouping. I feared that the final unresolved phrase of the score, which falls to Cinderella solo, might be obscured and ruined.
Happily, I was wrong. At the precise moment, as if in a flight of magical levitation, lovely Kelly Jakiel Copps lifted herself toward the center of the group and delivered the punctuating sentiment, a cappella, with clarity and focus. “I wish…!”
With this auspicious first outing, Second Generation fills me with hope. I wish—more than jewels, more than anything—for more and more from this young company, and from others like it, yet to arrive on the scene.
Into the Woods continues through June 23. See “On the Boards” for details. All performances are sold out. Names will be taken for a waiting list.
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