It’s Magic: ‘Into the Woods’ is the Encore’s greatest enchantment yet

Jessica Grové as the witch in Encore's "Into the Woods."

It’s difficult to review a show like “Into the Woods,” as a local theater reviewer, because talking about it makes so many other really solid, even top-notch productions that the folks at the Encore have done over the past year or two in particular absolutely pale in comparison.

As much as I loved “On Golden Pond,” “Guys on Ice” or “South Pacific” or even older Encore classics like “Music Man” and “Forever Plaid,” “Into the Woods” is a new high that’s really only been close to matched by “The Light in the Piazza,” “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” and “Club Morocco.”

If you’re not a local theater nerd or reviewer that might not mean much to you, but what it amounts to is that Director Dan Cooney’s handling of this Stephen Sondheim (music) and James Lapine (book, original Broadway director) 1987 Broadway favorite is some of the best theater production that’s occurred on Broad Street in Dexter, Michigan in many years — if not ever.

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Those familiar with ABC show “Once Upon A Time” (in fact, “Into the Woods” begins with that classic story-starting phrase word-for-word) will recognize what’s happening when Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault fairy tale characters begin making wishes in turn during an expertly stage choreographed segment where one scene fades out as another fades in, as characters from “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Rapunzel,” and “Cinderella” each wish for something that they desire.

Of course, what fairy tale worth its salt wouldn’t have those same characters wind up with a lot more than they bargained for. At two-and-a-half hours in length, “Woods” gives Cooney and the rest of the cast and crew ample time to explore these characters and their tales far beyond the fairytale endings those of us who have heard these stories countless times as small children are familiar with.

Having all of these stories, characters and themes happening in the same space in an interactive way is what gives “Woods” its power to charm and delight audiences. Watching Red Riding Hood grow into an overaggressive borderline ultra-violent figure, Rapunzel turn into a whack-job, or the princes’ stage-time exceed their romantic attention spans are just some of the many resulting fairy tale mashups that are played with over the course of this delightful tale.

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It’s a good thing that Matthew Brennan and Cooney are at the top of their game, as evidenced by how actors phase into and out of view, often while moving set pieces and even the piano at which Tyler Driskill was often seated tickling the ivories. As scenes shift and the setting changes, the lighting and the sound focus and refocus the audience’s attention during these four alternating fairytales, until they all come crashing together in a calamitous explosion of hilarity and tragedy.

Really kudos should also be given to stage manager Alex Kunitz, set designer Sarah Tanner, lighting designer Daniel C. Walker, costume designer Sharon Larkey Urick, and prop master Anne Donevan. These folks handle virtually everything other than the music and the acting. Everything that happened on the Encore’s intimate stage when I saw “Woods” last Saturday (apologies for the belated review) between the actors’ skin and the light bulbs up in the sound and lighting booth was better than it’s ever been, thanks to these folks.

Sondheim’s music as performed by Driskill on piano, Ruby Brailler on cello, Chris Mike on reeds, David Shann on violin and Mike Morrison/Jordan McKay on percussion is evocative and was without flaw during the performance that I saw. As with everything else on the stage, and Driskill who was already mentioned aside, the placement of the musicians was pitch perfect amidst all of the moving people and pieces that danced onto and off of the stage with the precision of an antique analog Swiss watch.

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The cast of “Woods” is phenomenal, to say the least.

Led by Broadway talented Jessica Grové (also Cooney’s wife) playing the witch, who is also Rapunzel’s overbearing mommy-dearest, everyone hit my funny-bones and tugged at my heart-strings right on cue with maximum efficacy.

Grové in particular was a powerful stage presence, both before the lifting of the curse where choreography brought her telekinetic and other magical powers to life and post-curse, where she’s merely a pretty face with serious powers of a type describable with another word that starts with a different letter but also ends with -itch.

Hannah Hesseltine sometimes stole the show as Little Red, who undergoes a character transformation that is hilarious, but also makes sense for someone who undergoes the trauma that she is put through by the Big Bad Wolf … speaking of which.

Sebastian Gerstner’s performance as the wolf, particularly during musical number “Hello, Little Girl” is one of the funnest moments of the show. I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to call out to Little Red in warning or call Chris Hansen to get involved. It was a nuanced and naughty skit that is some of the best I’ve seen from Gerstner, whose agility and animation made him completely believable as a wolf, despite only having hairy wolf hands, a furry getup and his exposed chest as his means of emulating the creature.

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Peter Crist’s Rapunzel Prince joins Gerstner’s Cindarella Prince for an entertaining back and forth as the air-headed spoiled royals lament their evolving romantic dilemma’s time and again, proving that even in fairytale-land some people are incapable of receiving their happily ever after.

Matthew Brennan and Thalia Schramm are the heart of “Woods,” as “the Baker” and “the Baker’s wife,” who set out on a quest at the behest of the evil witch, after she reveals that she placed a curse on Baker’s family for his father’s despoilment of her garden. It’s this errand that puts needle through these four formerly separate fairytale worlds and threads them together as the couple tries to lift the curse so that they can bring a child into this world and start their own family.

And last, but certainly not least, a big pat on the back goes to Tim Brayman who played Milky the Cow. Never before has an actor conveyed so much with so little. Somehow Brayman conveys the full range of human emotion with cud chewing, moo’s and the remaining two or three gestures that a cow is capable of other than defecating and eating turf.

Hopefully this one gets an extended run, as everyone in Washtenaw County and the surrounding counties of Jackson, Livingston and Monroe who even has a slight interest in live performances of any sort would be suffering a great loss in missing their opportunity to see what is some of the very best theater that’s ever happened in this county this century.

“Into the Woods” is playing at the Encore Musical Theatre until August 30. For information on how to get your tickets click on the following link here.

Thank you to local professional photographer Michelle Anliker for the beautiful photos of “Into the Woods,” provided on behalf of the Encore Musical Theatre Company.

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