Monday, August 18, 2014

C.A.S.T. Ventures Into the Woods (Jr.)

From left: Adam Burgess (Jack) and  Lilian Wakefield (Jack's mother)

By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker

When Into the Woods made its Broadway debut in 1987, many audience members opined that the show should have ended on the “happily ever after” note of the first act – a charming amalgam of fairy tales with great songs, fun characters, and no dark side. Theatre in the Grove’s current C.A.S.T. (Children’s After School Theatre) production of Into the Woods, Jr. conforms nicely to that model, as the one-act condensation never really delves into the mature second-act themes of the Sondheim classic. The sanitized version, which would horrify us in any other context, is both entertaining and appropriate in a production designed for youthful performers, and the kids in the C.A.S.T  production do a fine job of bringing this complex Sondheim work to a  younger audience.

What from the original work is retained? Red Riding Hood and her voracious appetite for baked goods, the Wolf and his voracious appetite for Red and Granny, the Baker and his wife, the Witch whose curse renders the Baker childless, the tasks set by the Witch to reverse the curse, Cinderella and her dysfunctional step family, light-fingered Jack (of beanstalk fame), his loving Mother and trusty bovine sidekick Milky White, Rapunzel, and two lovestruck Princes. What is lost? Infidelity, murder, chaos, destruction, revenge, and some boffo songs. The weirdly omniscient narrator is replaced by a group of children reading a book of fairy tales – a nicely logical approach to the material.

Director Jeanna Van Dyke has succeeded in attracting and retaining many of the area’s best youthful performers – several standouts in the current production are veterans of last year’s Fiddler, Jr. and last winter’s Hobbit (including Assistant Director Adam Borrego), and we have really enjoyed watching these young artists develop. We are also pleased to see several new actors in the troupe, ensuring that C.A.S.T. will have access to a broad talent base in years to come.

The Baker (Jeremiah Stephens) and his wife (Brea Grimes) are perhaps the show’s strongest all-around performers – great vocals, clear and convincing acting that anchors the entire production. Athena Van Dyke (as Red Riding Hood) is charming, funny, and bouncy, and she has great timing. While some of the higher notes are a bit of a stretch for her pleasant alto voice, she manages to sell her songs effectively. Noah Burgess (as Jack) does a fine job on “Giants in the Sky,” captures his character’s wide-eyed, dotty innocence, and interacts beautifully with Milky White the Cow. Cinderella (Brenna Fitzgearld) has a flair for the physical comedy required of her role, and her pretty voice makes “Steps of the Palace” one of the evening’s best numbers. Another show highlight is the always popular “Agony” – carried off with aplomb by the two Princes (Adam Borrego and Nick Nieder). Mikayla Wallace (the Witch) is convincingly sinister, although some of vocals are muffled by her mask. The vocal ensemble numbers are equally strong, demonstrating the depth of the show’s talent base.

As with any opening night, there were a few technical problems, but the professionalism of the cast ensured that they never dropped a beat. Remarkably, the whole show was assembled in only three weeks (just 12 days  of rehearsal) – a tribute to the dedication of the director, cast and crew. Forest Grove is lucky to have such a fine youth theater program, especially one that is free to the actors (and with a maximum ticket price of $5.00) so that all local youth have access to live theater.

Into the Woods, Jr. plays at Forest Grove’s Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, through Sunday, August 24th with performances at 7:30 on Friday and Saturday and 2:30 on Sunday.

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