On most nights that you step into the Paramount Theatre in Aurora, you are magically transported into the world of that evening’s story by virtue of some of the most spectacular sets imaginable. Paramount’s current production of Into the Woods is yet another example of this.
As the title suggests, Into the Woods takes place in a wooded forest. To accomplish setting the mood, scenic designer Jeffery D. Kmiec has pulled out all the stops. On stage, stretching up as high as you can see, is a stunningly beautiful forest. These are not paintings or cut outs, these three-dimensional trees look 100% authentic.
STRETCHING TO HEAVEN
With this glorious set filling the stage to the heavens, as you sit back in your seat and watch as the lights go down, you’ll find yourself saying “Well, this is going to be fun.” And, you’ll be right.
The lively, fun-filled production features music and lyrics by the late Stephen Sondheim, one of America’s most prolific composers. The musical’s witty book is by James Lapine, weaving together pieces of stories from traditional, famous Brothers Grimm fairy tales including Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Ridinghood, and Jack and the Bean Stalk.
These various fables are then tied together by Sondheim and Lapine in a story about a baker and his wife who long to have children, but discover they have been cursed by the witch who lives next door. The only way to lift the curse is to gather a series of items for the witch: Jack’s milky white cow, Little Red’s cloak, Rapunzel’s hair, and Cinderella’s shoe. Gathering these items is the throughline that imaginatively ties all the stories together.
Directed by Jim Corti and Trent Stork, with choreography by Kasey Alfonso, and music direction by Kory Danielson, Into the Woods ranks among the very best that Paramount has mounted on its glorious stage. The story and music are well known, but the execution is what makes this production truly superior. This is thanks to many details including a wonderfully diverse cast.
The role of the Witch is one meant for a diva. Famous artists to have played the role include Bernadette Peters, Vanessa Williams, Phylicia Rashad, Lea Salonga, Patina Miller, Hannah Waddingham, Patina Miller, and Heather Headley.
For the Paramount production, Natalie Weiss receives top billing as the Witch. Weiss’s credits include Broadway and national tours; recordings The Greatest Showman, Dear Evan Hansen, Incredibles 2, and Spirited; as well as appearances on American Idol. Weiss is a very competent singer and actress and fills the role well.
The show’s narrator is played by Larry Yando, who commands the stage with a regal elegance from his very first entrance. With credits ranging from television’s Chicago Fire to such top theater companies as Goodman, Chicago Shakespeare, Royal George, and Steppenwolf, Yando is one Chicago’s theatrical treasures, and again proves his worth with a grand performance steering the ship across the sea and into port in just over three hours.
The Baker and his barren wife are played with earnest sincerity and honesty by Stephen Schellhardt and Sarah Bockel. In addition to delivering fantastic individual performances, they have great chemistry and play extremely well off of each other.
One of the things that works so well in this production, is that Conti and Stork have peppered the scenes with actors approaching their roles with different styles. Some of the performers, such as Schellhardt and Bockel, play mostly the realism in their characters – making them human and relatable. Other characters are played almost cartoon like. Yet it balances out into one great melting pot of entertainment.
Cinderella and Rapunzel are characters delivered by deliciously talented actresses Hannah Louise Fernandes and Molly Hernández. Both are glorious singers and capture both the humor and the over-the-top dramatic moments that make the characters a delight to watch.
As the princely suitors of Cinderella and Rapunzzel, Alex Syiek and Devin DeSantis are hysterical kings of comedy. Their conceited, head-in-the-clouds personas are a delight.
Syiek (who also plays the Wolf who is out to eat Little Red Ridinghood) has a manic energy much like Mandy Patinkin in his prime – he goes over the top to the point it could be ridiculous, but somehow gives it just enough honesty to keep it authentic. Meanwhile, DeSantis’s prince character makes tribute to such unique talents as William Shatner and David Hasselhoff, with each line funnier than the one before. Together they are spectacular.
Little Red Ridinghood is wonderfully played by Lucy Panush, who infuses her character with a deathly dark side that would make Wednesday star Jenna Ortega proud.
Jack and his mother are played by newcomer Will Koski and national touring talent Christine Bunuan. Koski turns in a very fine performance in his Paramount debut and Bunuan is hysterical. Koski is a big man and Bunuan is tiny, so the physical humor between the two is an absolute laugh-fest.
STRONG SUPPORTING CAST
Among the supporting cast, standouts include Dana Tretta in multiple roles, involving providing the show’s most hilarious moments as Little Red’s grandmother. I was so struck by her comedic exit, that I was still laughing throughout the entire next scene. Also worth citing are the comedic moments created by Kelli Harrington, Landree Fleming, and Ann Delaney as Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters.
Directors Corti and Stork have not done anything radically unheard of with Into the Woods. They haven’t changed the script or the songs; they haven’t changed the characters. What they’ve done is cast extremely talented actors, hired highly skilled musicians, and given them the tools to be brilliant. And that’s exactly what you’ll get with Paramount Theatre’s Into the Woods – brilliance.
Among the many things to praise in this telling of the Sondheim musical, puppetry is a big one. The ensemble fills a number of roles as puppeteers of animals and prop pieces that are supposed to have human qualities. In particular, Adam Fane is very impressive as Jack’s cow Milky White.
Also, costumes by Jordan Ross are excellent, and lighting design by José Santiago and sound design by Adam Rosenthal are exceptional. Praise also goes to puppet designer Jesse Mooney-Bullock and wig, hair, & makeup designer Katie Cordts.
Into the Woods will serve as a crown jewel for Paramount Theatre – a testament to theatrical brilliance. Get your tickets while you can and enjoy a true Broadway experience without going to New York.
The production runs through March 19 at 23 E. Galena Blvd. in downtown Aurora, just a hop, skip, and jump outside Chicago. Performances run Wednesdays at 1:30 PM and 7 PM, Thursdays at 7 PM, Fridays at 8 PM, Saturdays at 3 PM and 8 PM, and Sundays at 1 PM and 5:30 PM.
Into the Woods is suggested for ages 12 and up. For tickets call the box office at (630) 896-6666 or visit www.ParamountAurora.com.
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
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Another excellent and accurate review-having seen this production, I totally agree! Bravo!
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