Every musical production is a juggling act, but few match “Into the Woods” in terms of complexity of staging and storyline, music and dance, not to mention sheer length.
The play boasts 27 back-to-back musical numbers, belted out by the 23-member cast of what should have been at least seven fairy tales, all of which become intertwined in the woods.
Brett Chizever, a veteran performer of the North Fork stage, must be a bit mad to have chosen this bear of a Stephen Sondheim production for his directorial debut, but if he’s mad, his madness has paid off brilliantly, because the North Fork Community Theatre’s production of “Into the Woods,” which opened May 15, is just plain smashing.
The ensemble is nearly perfectly cast, and it’s obvious from the opening curtain that every actor is giving their all in an athletic, fast-paced production.
The singing rarely stops in “Into the Woods.” Most of the songs have stretched melody lines, many are fugal rounds that require perfect timing, and most require some serious oomph on the part of the singers.
The condensed pit orchestra, comprised of some of the most dedicated sound sculptors on the North Fork, gave their all to create the magic of this production.
One of the biggest challenges for a community theater musical production is the uneven impression a play can give audiences when the finest singers in the company share the stage with singers who aren’t endowed with great pipes.
If this was an issue for the cast of this production, it doesn’t come across on stage, and several of the musical numbers had the nearly sold-out audience whooping and cheering at the powerhouse performances.
“Into the Woods” is not just a play about song, and the actors seem to delight in the nuances of their characters.
It’s an understatement to say there is no hero in this play. In fact, it takes a long time to decide if any of the characters are even likable. At the onset, most are entirely self-serving, and those that aren’t are complete dolts or saps. The cast seems to delight in portraying their characters’ warts.
Matt Senese and Kristen Alestra turn in fine performances as the Baker and his Wife, who can’t bear children due to a witch’s curse and go off into the woods in search of four items from other fairy tales to bring to the witch to have the curse removed.
They spend the first act in ruthless search for their items, stealing from and tricking other fairy tale characters on the way.
As the Baker sets off on his mission, he justifies his quest in song:
“Things are only what you need them for. The question is, who needs them more?”
This could be the mantra of most of the characters in “Into the Woods.”
Devin Lilly turns in stellar performances as both the Wolf from Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella’s prince — both characters exude slimy charm, freak-show dance moves and a couple show-stopping numbers, “Agony” and “Hello, Little Girl.”
Ella Watts-Gorman, fresh off her run on NBC’s “The Sound of Music,” plays a downright creepy Little Red Riding Hood, with a sly little smile and a cold, cold heart. She steals sweets from the baker, seems non-plussed at the Wolf’s sexual advances and shows little emotion when her mother and grandmother die. The only thing that seems to bother her is when the baker steals her cloak.
Patrick O’Brien also turns in a fine performance as the doe-eyed Jack from Jack and the Beanstalk, who accidentally sets a female giant loose from the heavens to wreak havoc on the kingdom, killing everything in her path.
The baker and the surviving cast members are then forced to work together to save what’s left.
In a world in which selfishness is a given, the best that any of these characters can achieve is enlightened self-interest. It’s a testament to these actors’ capability for nuance that you leave the show, not cheering for their success, but pondering the lack of altruism out there in the woods.
“Into the Woods” continues for two more weekends, with showtimes at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sunday matinees through June 1. Tickets are $20 and are available online here or by calling 631.298.4500.