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Keeton Theatre is on fire with Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's classic Into the Woods

Burnin' Woods

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Almost five years ago, Franklin's Boiler Room Theatre mounted an imaginative production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Into the Woods, itself an imaginative extrapolation from the text of familiar fairy tales. Now The Larry Keeton Theatre is offering its own inspired take on the same material, and it's a magically staged, musically enchanting and well-cast effort that would seem to indicate the local theatrical talent pool continues to increase in numbers and ability.

First performed in 1986, Into the Woods had a healthy though not astounding Broadway run with Bernadette Peters. It features 28 musical numbers that often seem like one long one, with continuous passages of recitative that affirm composer Sondheim's flirtations with opera. That includes one very long opening number that sets a fanciful mood of  "once upon a time," plus introduces us to iconic characters such as Cinderella, Jack (of beanstalk fame), the Baker and his wife, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel.

Lapine's clever book refreshes the fairy tales, infusing them with more adult motivations and attitudes, not to mention tongue-in-cheek humor. Heading toward the close of Act 1, it appears that all endings will be happy, and that the show will wrap up conveniently in 80 minutes.

Not so fast. A full Act 2 is yet to come, in which emotional and ethical darkness descends upon the superficially happy little kingdom, requiring the characters to work their way through a thicket of subliminally troubled interrelationships, represented symbolically in the form of a marauding Giant.   

Noted as a choreographer, director Kate Adams-Johnson is never really afforded a chance here to showcase conventional dances as such. But as a musical play with movement, Into the Woods requires a constant fluidity in its staging, and Adams-Johnson admirably achieves the requisite pacing and blocking. (No mean feat, given her large cast and a script that might be overwritten.)

Flawless musical direction by Ginger Newman provides a well-integrated call-and-response interplay between vocals and instruments, the latter featuring two keyboards helmed by experienced theatrical players Lee Druce and John Todd.

Sondheim fans may appreciate the way this score retraces the trail of harmonic bread crumbs set out years earlier in the master's Company (1970) or A Little Night Music (1973). Meanwhile, a series of Act 2 solos and small-group numbers, including "Moments in the Woods," "Last Midnight" and "No One Is Alone," propels the story to its warmly serious conclusion and its rich messages about family and the cycle of life.  

The principal players are marvelous in every way, especially the women. Laura Crockarell as Cinderella, Janette Bruce as the Baker's Wife and the ultra-poised 12-year-old Stella London are very much in the pocket with their deft characterizations, natural presence and versatility. Yet Mallory Gleason, in what emerges as a star turn as the Witch, manages to trump them all, with a keen transition from horrid-looking hag to harridan hottie. 

The men fare well, too, including Jonathan Perry as Jack and Cee Anthony as the Baker, plus Ben Gregory as Mysterious Man, Randal Cooper as the Wolf and Flynt Foster and Darin Richardson as the two princes.

A quick shout-out to Jim Manning and Laura Higgins for their evocative sets and costumes, respectively, accomplished very nicely on a budget.

 

We are family

Though a vastly different production from Into the Woods, Shawn Whitsell's new play, Beyond Loose Ties, travels similar terrain of family and the hope for human connection.

Whitsell and his Destiny Theatre Experience are celebrating five years on the local theater scene, and while this effort is familiar in tone, it's more strongly structured than some of the playwright's previous works. 

Rashad Rayford is Luke, recently released from prison and trying to land on his feet as he moves in with his father, who has remarried and has a new mixed-race family. Luke struggles with the transition, as he also searches for his long-lost drug-addicted mother — and then is stunned by some new familial revelations. 

Act 1 coherently establishes dramatis personae and motivations, while Act 2's confessional tone is undermined slightly by awkwardly revealed plot points. Yet the story culminates in a moving expression of the power and importance of the father-son relationship.  

There are patches where Whitsell's direction lacks emphasis and specificity — where his players never quite engage physically as they might. Still, his cast — a mix of some very experienced performers and newer players — never fades in its sincere enactment of a fairly complex story.

The production has special dramatic spark in the scenes featuring Rayford and Tamiko Robinson. The other contributors include Jimmie Hill, Molly Breen, Bralyn Stokes, Regan Minner, J. Worthy and Adarian Lherisson. Community theater vet Layne Sasser also checks in with a colorful cameo as the too-opinionated grandmother.

Beyond Loose Ties continues at the Darkhorse Theater through July 28.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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