Tuesday, October 7, 2014

BCT Knocks Into the Woods Out of the Park

Beth Noelle (the Witch), Amelia Rothschild-Morgan (the Baker's Wife), and
Jake Beaver (the Baker)

By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker

In essays, editorials, etc. the conclusion is generally to be found at the end of the piece. Beaverton Civic Theatre’s current production drives us to ignore this principle and lead with our considered opinion – Into the Woods is not only the best musical BCT has ever done, it is the best community theater musical we have seen in 41 years of theater-going. It helps, of course, that the cast was drawn from a flood of actors – we understand that the audition pool was enormous. However, co-directors Melissa Riley and Josh Pounders did a spectacular job of picking just the right cast from a truly regional talent base. Remarkably, only four of nineteen cast members have appeared in previous BCT productions. This production, with this cast but more resources, could be mounted on any of several local professional stages.

Into the Woods may be Stephen Sondheim’s best-loved musical. His songs, sometimes startlingly witty and sometimes emotional and profound, are a perfect complement to James Lapine’s book – a marvelous jumble of fairy tales drawn from Jack in the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and more. The stories intersect through the three main characters – the Baker (Jake Beaver), the Baker’s Wife (Amelia Morgan-Rothschild), and the Witch (Beth Noelle) – none of them drawn directly from the show’s fairy-tale antecedents. These powerful characters, supported by an amazingly gifted ensemble, weave a new story of love and responsibility never imagined by the Brothers Grimm.

Essie Bertain (Cinderella) and Olivia Noelle (Little Red Riding Hood)
Long before the announcement was made, we had already mentally cast Jake and Amelia in their roles (doesn’t everyone have dream casts?). We were right. Beaver is perfect for the part – his warm and mellow baritone fills the theater on solos and provides the foundation for the vocal ensemble, and he brings a maturity and subtlety to the complex role that belies his 25 years. Rothschild-Morgan is every bit as strong. Her wide vocal range permits her to deftly handle Sondheim’s demanding score, and her timing and delivery ensure that none of the authors’ intricate lyrics or dialogue fall by the wayside.  Noelle is equally well-suited as the witch, the most challenging role in the show. She navigates the transition from withered crone to supple dynamo with ease, and she is equally effective whether delivering tongue-twisting patter or heart-rending ballads.

There is a lot to love in the rest of the cast. Almost all were obviously chosen for both their singing and acting ability, and it really shows in the beautiful ensemble numbers. Essie Bertain (“Cinderella”) is gifted with a mobile face and exquisite voice – and her timing on “Steps of the Palace” makes it a comic highlight of the show. Olivia Noelle (“Little Red Riding Hood”) has obviously inherited a lot of talent from her mother (who plays the Witch). She is terribly funny, has a lovely voice, and has somehow mastered the art of singing with her mouth full – kind of like a musical spit take! The other younger cast member, Burke Boyer (“Jack”) displays a convincingly plaintive relationship with his pet cow, and does a fine job with his two big solos, “I Guess This is Goodbye” and “Giants in the Sky.” Jack’s Mother, as played by Kymberli Colbourne, gets several big laughs with her wry, frustrated take on the character.

Two characters often hidden in the shadows really came out of the woods in this production – Greg Prosser (“Narrator”/”Mysterious Man”) and Sarah Spear (“Rapunzel”). Prosser’s clear speaking voice is well suited to his expository function, and his added involvement as bird puppeteer is a nice touch. Spear’s well-deserved prominence in the show (her voice and face are both quite lovely) comes from the directors’ choice to keep her center-stage (and perhaps from the audience’s proximity to the action). Max Artsis (“Cinderella’s Prince”/”Wolf”) and Kraig Williams (“Rapunzel’s Prince”) work well together, and the iconic duo “Agony” earns the requisite laughs. Artsis’ lithe physicality and seductively sinister mien ensure that the carnal nature of both of his roles is fully realized.

Of course, no cast is alone – especially in a musical. Given the space constraints of BCT’s current venue, a full orchestra would have been impossible, and completely canned music inadequate to a production this strong. As music director, Pounders made a brilliant choice, augmenting the pre-recorded score with flautist Cara Morgan and clarinetist David Massey – their accents give the music a live feel and provide the actors with much-needed cues. The single set, a darkly detailed forest scene, is cleverly designed to utilize every inch of the stage, and Rapunzel’s Tower stands in lieu of wing space for much of the action.

The enthusiasm of opening night’s full house audience predicts that there will not be many empty seats for the run of the show. We’ve seen audiences cheer at final curtain – but did not expect it at intermission! We recommend that you buy tickets in advance – there’s no guarantee that walk-ups can be accommodated.

Into the Woods runs through Sunday, October 18th at the Beaverton City Library Auditorium. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and 2:00 p.m. on Sunday.

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