Murfreesboro Center takes on Sondheim’s ‘Woods’ and it’s absolutely delightful

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“Hey Eric! They’re doing your favorite play in Murfreesboro in a couple weeks…” my roommate said to me as she sat on the couch playing with her phone while we were watching TV.

One of the things we share is a love of theatre, so she knows my favorite play is without question is Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. When I first saw it I was 15 and going through the teenage angst we all know so well. It truly spoke to me on another level about growing up. The fact that “You decide, but you are not alone” and that you always have to be careful with the things you wish… It struck a chord that I wasn’t use to thinking about.

I own the original Broadway version with the incomparable Bernadette Peters and Joanna Gleason and honestly could use a new copy because mine is considerably worn. Anytime I have the ability to see it live, I take it. So my roommate and I made the long trek this week during rush hour on I-24.

I mouthed nearly every word while watching it, so much I think the actors who noticed thought I might be insane. I think that goes to show you that this review may be biased, so please keep that in mind.

Murfreesboro Center for the Arts has taken on Into the Woods as their first project of 2016. Originally debuting in 1988, it is the combination of several of the Grimm’s Brothers Fairy Tales which tell a darker side than what we’re used to seeing. It tells the story of Cinderella, Jack (of Jack and the bean-stalk fame), Little Red Riding Hood, the Baker and his Wife, and several more – all living in the same magical kingdom. In the first act, it tells the happy tale of Cinderella going to the king’s festival, Jack climbing the beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood going to see granny, and the Baker and his wife needing to please a witch to have a baby. The first act ends with all the characters getting what they deserve, some good some bad. The second act tells what happens after ‘happily ever after,’ because everything has a consequence. It won 3 Tony Awards; Best Book, Best Score, and Best Actress in a Musical (Joanna Gleason). It was nominated for the coveted Best Musical award, but lost to a little known show about some masked ghost who lived in an opera house. (You can see that one, too; I hear it’s coming to TPAC in March.)

Disney did a movie version in 2014 that didn’t translate well with movie-goers, but that isn’t surprising considering Sondheim is trying for literary effect as opposed to cinematic. Meryl Streep played the witch, James Corden the baker, and Anna Kendrick did a wonderfully quirky Cinderella. It was the re-doing of, what I think is fair to say, a cult classic. I loved it because it meant local theater houses have been doing it a lot more lately.

This production of Into the Woods was different in a couple places, but was absolutely delightful. The additions that were made were so unexpected, but thought-provoking and kept me intrigued. If you know the story, you’ll appreciate the little additions. They used pieces of the 2002 revival edition that I had never seen before. As a fan, I really appreciated seeing it.

The casting was quite interesting as well. That happens with community theatre frequently, so it’s always fun to see what you’re going to get. You can tell this company does well with teenagers, because several roles were filled with very talented young actors who show a lot of promise. As a former teen actor in community theatre, I love that teens have a place to perform. Goodness knows, those are some of my most fond childhood memories. Also enjoyable, the voice of the giant’s wife. Normally done in a thick, uppity English voice was, this time, a very angry Southern woman’s voice. It gave me a chuckle.

Standout performances in the show were numerous. I have a few favorites, I must confess. Here are the highlights:

The Baker, played by Patrick Kramer, was so well done. He truly delivered with this classic role that I’ve seen several actors muck up, making the role un-relatable. Mister Kramer obviously knew what he was doing with the role, because he delivered it masterfully. He was recently in a show with Nashville Rep, so I’m looking forward to seeing him around town, even if he doesn’t stay here for long because he does have talent that I imagine will go places.

The Baker’s Wife, played by Alexius Frost, was as perfect as possible. The role is meant to be funny, but so often I see the actresses who take this role forget that or don’t know the timing it takes to get the laugh. Miss Frost did not have the problem at all, making me laugh more than I have in a very long time for that role. Absolutely one of the best I’ve seen.

Jack’s Mother, played by Suzi Richardson, was so good. It’s a very quirky role. She added so much to the role that was, to me, very thoughtful and original. Her movements and comedic timing were just impeccable. At one point, she even cried on the shoulder of Cinderella’s Prince. It was hysterical. She took the whole ‘smother-mother’ aspect of the role to new heights. Bravo, Miss Richardson. Bravo.

Jack, played by Dwayne Benn, was without question my favorite Jack ever. The role is made to be childish and funny, but goodness gracious… this was exceptional. I’ve never laughed that hard at that role. So many times, the role is missing so much whimsy when it’s so obviously in the book. Mister Benn, a twenty-something who is new to town after graduating from Carson-Newman, is going to be someone I have to pay attention to. He played this role so naturally, you could tell he was very in touch with the character. It just seemed like he was being himself. The honesty during the sad parts of the show was well played too. I truly think we might have a hidden gem with Mister Benn. I really can’t wait to see what he will be doing next.

Community theatre always has its quirks; on this particular evening they were having technical difficulties with microphones. However, it is such a worthwhile experience. The set, while small, was very well crafted with one of the prettiest backdrops I've seen in any theater. When you’re doing a show this big, to fit it in this space was something I was very impressed with.

It doesn’t even matter with the technicalities. If you live in a community with live theatre, you need to support it. It only gets better with your support. This was my first time to this particular theater and it was, in a word, picturesque. On the square in Murfreesboro, it’s a small theater, but it’s very comfortable. It has an art gallery that it appears they may do smaller plays in as well. The staff is friendly and the atmosphere is warm. It really was a community event. Actors in the show had their grandparents and families there, as well as a few community leaders. It was a fun night out in a small town, and I look forward to many more.

Up next for them is DREAMGIRLS, a story we all know and love. If you can make it to see Into The Woods, absolutely do so. The show is up the rest of the weekend and tickets may be hard to get, so if you can, do it!

 

 

Into the Woods plays at the Murfreesboro Center for the Arts through January 31. Tickets are available online. (Photo provided).