Reviewed by Nicholas Linnehan
So a lot of the theater community has a “thing” about traveling out of Manhattan to see shows. I never understood why. But when you go see a Theater 2020 production in downtown Brooklyn, you’ll soon see that it is your loss to have such a limited mentality. I made the trek, which isn’t bad at all. It only took me 30 minutes from the Upper East side to get there and it was well worth it; their current production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods is quite good. I had my doubts because I loved the movie so much, but their clever interpretation of this musical shines bright.
What I love about this mixed-up world where characters from many different fairy tales collide is that it makes you think everyone’s going to live happily ever after at the end of act one. But act two reveals that appearances can be deceiving. When a giant threatens to kill everyone in an act of revenge, the characters’ true colors stand out and it becomes an introspective look at humanity, as twists and turns reveal our flaws and that everybody has a weakness for someone or something. We discover that this applies to us as a society and as individuals.
Sondheim’s music allows us to be thoroughly entertained and we do not immediately realize that we are actually not as different from the fairy tale characters as we may have thought. It isn’t until the end of the show that we truly understand that we have just witnessed the darker side of people, and what’s scarier is that we can see those traits in ourselves. The best type of education happens when you do not realize you are being taught something until after it has happened. This musical does just that, revealing startling truths about our humanness.
For the most part, director David Fuller has assembled a superb cast whose vocal chops are up there with Broadway level singers. For instance, the witch, played wonderfully by Julia Goretsky, steals the show. This was the role I thought Fuller was going to be the hardest to successfully fill after Meryl Streep and Bernadette Peters had played this iconic character and gave stunning performances in their own right. The role must have seemed like an overwhelming task for Goretsky but you would never know, for her acting skills are stellar and her voice touches us with every note she sings. She proves that she can hold her own with the best of them by exceeding expectations, and delivering a top-notch performance. Also praiseworthy is John Jeffords, whose sincerity as Rapunzel’s Prince strikes a chord. Jeffords has received performance-based accolades before, and from watching his mastery skills in action, one can see why, as he commands our attention by giving a genuine portrayal of a conflicted prince.
My only quibbles, with the otherwise fabulous cast, is Alexander Coopersmith, who plays Cinderella’s conceited prince. It feels as if he is playing a caricature of the prince, instead of actually inhabiting the role as his counterpart Jeffords does. This is a shame for Coopersmith, who has a fantastic voice but delivers a performance that feels forced. Jeffords and Coopersmith, the two princes, need to complement each other, but as it stands, the duo is in completely out of step with each other. Their juxtaposition is jarring and makes it seem as if they are in different worlds. Also, Tomo Watanabe, although cute and charming, has a voice that is not quite on par with the rest of the cast.
Yet, the good outweighs the bad. The costumes, designed by Matthew Lott, are minimalist, but here, less is clearly more for they are magically innovative. Many cast members play multiple roles, and Lott’s use of basic accessories allow us to never be confused about who’s playing who. For instance, the prince’s double as Cinderella’s wicked step sisters, and the men just add on a basic blue sash when playing the sisters. Sometimes the sisters and the princes are in the same scene together and the use of this mere piece of fabric provides a crystal clear indicator of which role the men are playing. The costume pieces allow the characters to seamlessly go from one character to the next, without necessitating any need for elaborate and unnecessary costume changes, which keeps the momentum of the show going.
This is the second production I have seen by Theater2020 and, in my opinion, they have hit two home runs. So, is there good theater outside of Manhattan? Theater 2020 answers this question with an astounding yes. Professional level theater CAN and DOES exist in Brooklyn.
Into the Woods plays now through March 17, 2019 at 180 Remsen St. Saint. Francis College. http://www.theater2020.com