Laura Olafson (The Witch) and Mackenzie Wojcik (The Narrator) (District Theatre Collective)
So the show’s already a hit - but is it good? Good, yes – but not quite great.
—Joff Schmidt, theatre reviewer
Definitely worth taking this trip Into the Woods
Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine may have out-grimmed the Brothers Grimm with their 1987 musical Into the Woods. After all, this twisted meshing of various fairly tales keeps a lot of the Grimms' carnage and mayhem, and adds a helping of existential angst.
Getting to (and through) that, though, involves a lot of fun - especially in District Theatre Collective's finely-tuned SondheimFest production.
The story of the intersection of various fairy tale characters - Red Riding Hood, Jack (of the beanstalk fame), Cinderella, and Rapunzel - and the aftermath of their quest for "happily ever after" presents a considerable challenge to its performers. Sondheim and Lapine's sly wit in the first act gives way to startling bleakness in the second. But Connie Manfredi's production embraces both enthusiastically, with invigorating results.
She's pared the production down to its bare bones - no spectacular sets or flashy costumes here, as she gives the role of the story's Narrator, traditionally an adult, to 10-year-old Mackenzie Wojcik, and makes this a story of his imagining. That leaves a lot resting on the shoulders of her 15-person cast, and they meet that challenge admirably.
The first act provides lots of clever, ironic comedy. Sam Plett brings the house down with his very wolfish Wolf in "Hello, Little Girl," and he and Darren Martens have great comic timing together as Cinderella's and Rapunzel's respective Princes. Aubree Erickson also earns plenty of laughs, but still develops a compellingly nuanced character, as the Baker's Wife, a woman who will go to terrible lengths to lift the curse that prevents her from having a child.
In the darker second act, Laura Olafson steals the show with a ferociously impassioned rendition of the more-complex-than-evil Witch's big solo, "Last Midnight."
There's darkness in these woods, and profound questions about what we'll sacrifice for our wishes. But there's also humour and hope - and the promise at the end of a "happily ever after."
Into the Woods runs at the Gas Station Arts Centre through Feb 2.
Follies is a box-office hit ... but is it good?
Some shows are pretty well review-proof, and Dry Cold's SondheimFest production of Follies is one of them. A few hours before their opening performance, they sold the last tickets for their five-show run.
So the show's already a hit - but is it good? Good, yes - but not quite great. Sondheim's loosely-plotted 1971 musical (with book by James Goldman) about the emotionally-fraught reunion of the performers of the "Weismann Follies" calls for a big production. And with a cast of 19 (including some of the city's most reliable musical theatre talent) singing and dancing their way through the two dozen or so songs in the 150-minute show, Follies is certainly a big production.
"Big" isn't always good, though. Director Reid Harrison sometimes lets his cast stray into over-acting, and he has a tendency to have them deliver solos by plunking them centre stage and having them belt to the audience - an approach which, curiously, seems to lessen the intimacy of the songs.
But the production's rough edges are outweighed by what it gets right. Sondheim's genius as a composer - and the reason he's so tricky to perform - shines in numbers like the montage of "Rain On the Roof," "Ah, Paris!," and "Broadway Baby" - which the cast handles skillfully. There's some great tap work in "Who's That Woman." Carson Nattrass does more fancy footwork with a show-stopping rendition of the vaudevillian "Buddy's Blues," and Brenda Gorlick does a wonderfully, playfully slinky version of "The Story of Lucy and Jessie." Phyllis Thomson and Lara Ciekiewicz stun with their powerful voices in the duet "One More Kiss."
So while it's not a pitch-perfect Follies, there is still lots to like here. Good news if you already bought a ticket - too bad if you didn't.
Follies runs at the Berney Theatre until Feb. 3.
Stephen Sondheim's Excellent Adventure -- more bogus than excellent
"Craft takes enormous amounts of sweat," Stephen Sondheim said in a recent Guardian interview. "To have an idea is one thing, to carry it out is another. And the carrying out - the execution - is where it's difficult, and where it matters."
These words could've been directed at the four ambitious and creative local theatre companies behind Stephen Sondheim's Excellent Adventure, a cheeky and disparate collection of seven theatre piece inspired (to varying degrees) by Sondheim, and by a writing challenge issued to him by his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein. There's no shortage of great ideas here, but the execution is all over the map.
Some bits work wonderfully. A trio of snappy rap battles (written and performed by Thomas Toles and Kevin Ramberran) riff cleverly on Waiting For Godot, The Importance of Being Earnest, and Oedipus Rex with hilarious (and very raunchy) results.
F*CK is a Sondheim-style musical inspired by David Mamet's famously profane play Sexual Perversity In Chicago. Writers Katie Man and Jane Walker earn laughs by nailing Mamet's rhythm. But the a capella musical numbers feel wedged in, and it sputters to an unsatisfying ending.
Feathers Become Her is a graceful dance piece, choreographed by Kayla Jeanson and inspired by Swan Lake. It's beautifully performed, and would work well on its own, but its bizarre tonal shift makes it an odd duck indeed in this evening of theatre.
And the 45-minute long closer, a Monty Pythonesque historical farce called By George, has moments - William Jordan and Ryan Ash turn in great silly performances as an English magistrate and a clueless New Englander. But it meanders and overstays its welcome by a long shot.
It's adventurous all right, but short of excellent.
Stephen Sondheim's Excellent Adventure runs at Studio 320 on Albert Street until Feb. 2.