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Sondheim's fairy-tale musical casts a truly bewitching spell

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The woods have been crowded lately with fairy-tale re-imaginings, both on television (see Once Upon a Time and Grimm), and at the movies (Snow White and the Huntsman and Mirror Mirror).

The fairest of them all remains the enchanting Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (book) 1987 musical Into the Woods, presented with clarity and verve by the dependable Distinct Theatre Collective.

A mash-up of familiar characters -- Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Jack of beanstalk fame -- reminds audiences that wishes come true, not free. These literary icons become flesh-and-blood people with real problems, not the Disney kind.

In Sondheim's and Lapine's neck of the woods, we find a baker and his wife, stand-ins for any contemporary couple, who have been cursed with infertility by a witch. To remove the spell they must enter the woods and bring the witch a white cow, a red cape, a golden slipper and yellow hair.

Director Connie Manfredi recognizes the impossible challenge Into the Woods present -- what with giants, beanstalks, towers and a people-eating wolf -- and opts to go low-tech, a choice best exemplified by a white box on casters representing the cow.

More crucial is her choice to present the story through the eyes of a 10-year-old child as narrator, a role traditionally played by an adult. He tells the story, sometimes sitting cross-legged on the stage in rapt attention as it plays out and occasionally grabbing a prop from the shelves lining the back of the wide open Gas Station Theatre stage to aid the action.

The presence of a child onstage creates a more pronounced sense of wonder to a story about parenting, growing up, loss and longing. Beautifully crafted songs like the haunting Children Listen, No More and No One is Alone will move anyone who's ever had a child, or been one.

The characters find their version of happiness in the first act, as the baker and his wife are successful in their quest and become parents. Cinderella gets her prince and Jack his golden harp and everyone seems destined to live happily ever after as the curtain comes down.

The feeling only lasts through the intermission, however, because when the characters return we discover their answered prayers are not what they're cracked up to be.

The woods are crawling with colourful portrayals and rich performances. As Cinderella, Julie Lumsden displays a beautiful voice while evolving from wide-eyed girl to open-eyed woman. Haley Vincent plays the scooter-riding Red with spunk and a fetching self-awareness about the urges the wolf's attentions have stirred in her. And who can blame Red, what with Sam Plett's lascivious but letter-perfect turn as the wolf, whose body language, even without his pelvic thrusts, reveals his evil intentions.

Plett does double duty with Darren Martens as the charmless prince brothers, dressed identically except for colour of their bow ties to suggest all princes are the same. Their signature song, Agony, in which they vent their frustrations, is a highlight of the night. Laura Olafson is drily sarcastic and nasty in her cronewear but once a spell is lifted, she becomes a ravishing Witch who heats up the stage, complaining about having her rutabagas rooted through.

As the baker's wife, Aubree Erickson is outstanding, convincing as a desperate would-be mother who risk everything for a tryst with a pompous prince who promptly dismisses the encounter as what-happens-in-the-woods-stays-in-the-woods. The cow-loving Jack is played sweetly by Nelson Bettencourt, while narrator Mackenzie Wojcik charms but sometimes has trouble making himself heard.

With a vengeful giant's wife inflicting painful loss after loss late into the 165-minute musical, the members of the surviving quartet learn the importance of community and lessons about themselves. They have been to the woods, and come out wiser, not destroyed.

Theatre review

Into the Woods

District Theatre Collective

To Saturday, at Gas Station Theatre

Tickets: $23.99

Four stars out of five

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 1, 2013 D6

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