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A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

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NJT’s riveting roundabout performance of Sondheim’s ‘Into the Woods’ is a winner

Jon Gitchoff

The New Jewish Theater is taking the unusual step of presenting “Into the Woods” in the round. The production is extraordinarily involving in the intimate setting of the Jewish Community Center’s Wool Studio Theater.

The musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine is a mashup of several classic fairy tales and one original story. The familiar characters include Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Jack of beanstalk fame. The new characters are a baker and his wife who are trying to undo a witch’s spell that has prevented them from having children.

Each plot thread arrives at a happy conclusion in Act One, but the characters do not live happily ever after. In Act Two they face a common danger when their earlier actions have dire, real-world consequences. The characters must grow up to overcome the existential threat.

The difference in tone between the show’s two acts has been controversial since the original production. The NJT staging emphasizes the continuity between the acts rather than the contrast. From the start, director Robert Quinlan brings out the story’s darkness as well as its comedy. The drama benefits from the closeness of the actors to the audience in the staging in the round.

The superb ensemble takes advantage of opportunities to make the production immersive. Sometimes the performers venture into the seating area and show they are aware of the audience. This toying with theatrical illusion foreshadows the second-act episode in which the characters turn on the narrator.

Photos by Jon Gitchoff

The seats are against three-and-a-half walls in the black box theater. The set by C. Otis Sweezey reserves half of one wall for the musicians and a massive tree whose initial appearance is deceptive. When the characters set out into the woods, the single tree is divided up into a group of the smaller trees. Three of them are wheeled away to different spots on the stage. Other important set pieces also are on wheels, simplifying changes in the setting.

On a stage where multiple activities can be going on at once, Jayson M. Lawshee’s lighting is a dependable guide to where the audience should be looking. The lighting and Amanda Werre’s sound design combine to provide impressive special effects for fairy-tale magic. Michele Friedman Siler’s eclectic costume designs create strong impressions about the characters.

Ellen Isom’s enlivening choreography is beautifully suited to the staging in the round. Three fine musicians play the score at just the right volume for the intimate space. The members of the trio are music director and pianist Larry D. Pry, cellist Christopher Bachmann and bassoonist Helen Bednara. Pry has a speaking role, too. He provides the reassuring voice of the narrator.

In addition to singing beautifully, the cast gives Sondheim’s lyrics the attention they deserve. Again and again, the performers bring out subtleties that point up the songs’ dramatic significance.

The intimate setting helps the splendid ensemble achieve remarkable cohesiveness. Almost all the actors have more than one part. Phil Leveling gives highly individual performances in three very different roles: the wolf, the mysterious man and Cinderella’s stepmother.

Matthew Cox puts striking contrast into his portrayals of the sweet but foolish Jack and the snooty, officious steward.

Kevin O’Brien and Molly Wennstrom bring revelatory tension to the relationship between the baker and his wife. Sarah Gene Dowling turns in a commanding portrayal of the witch. Her account of why the baker and his wife are infertile is uncommonly easy to understand at Dowling’s moderate tempo.

Kristen Joy Lintvedt tellingly depicts Cinderella’s emotional growth during the show. Aliyah Jacobs is full of spirit as Little Red, while Victoria Pines’ portrayal of Jack’s mother shows how dealing with her difficult son has worn her down.

Sarah Wilkinson affectingly portrays Rapunzel’s many sorrows. Matt Billings and Kevin Corpuz are charming but vain and self-serving as princes. Nisi Sturgis’s menacing portrayal of the giant justifies the terror experienced by the other characters.

At intermission on opening night, I heard another attendee say Sondheim should have ended “Into the Woods” after Act One. I’m happier than ever than ever that he didn’t after seeing the NJT production.

‘Into the Woods’

WHEN: Through Dec. 17
WHERE:  New Jewish Theatre’s Wool Studio Theater in the Jewish Community Center’s Arts & Education Building, 2 Millstone Campus Drive
HOW MUCH: $27 to $58
MORE INFO:  Visit newjewishtheatre.org or call 314-442-3283.


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