By SHARON EBERSON
“Be careful what you wish for” is one hard lesson among many in Into the Woods. Happily-ever-afters are elusive is another. However, happily for anyone who has wished that Pittsburgh CLO would retake that journey into the woods and bring new audiences along for the magical, musical ride, well, some wishes do come true.
Choosing a path Into the Woods can be fraught with challenges on the one hand, and filled with creative possibilities on the other, all in the service of an intricately woven James Lapine book and precise, tongue-twisting lyrics by that master of musical misdirection, Stephen Sondheim.
Patti Murin and Manu Narayan, as The Baker and The Baker’s Wife, are confronted by Carolee Carmello as The Witch in the Pittsburgh CLO production
of Into the Woods at the Benedum Center. (Images courtesy of Pittsburgh CLO)
It’s a beast of a multilayered show, and it can be beautiful, even tuneful for a Sondheim score. Featuring familiar characters in reinventions of their often dark and deadly original stories, Into the Woods comprises a long list of parables, notably about the consequences of both indecision and reckless action, but especially about parental responsibility and legacy.
The refrain “children will listen” has multiple meanings in a plot that includes a Witch who locks her kidnapped child in a tower, to keep her safe from the outside world.
The genius of Into the Woods is that nothing is what it seems, everything is open to interpretation and there is a chance you can see the forest for the trees.
This is a show that includes wisdom such as “The slotted spoon can’t hold much soup, but it can catch the potato.” If done right, it is both meaningful and hilarious.
And Pittsburgh CLO does it right.
Fourteen years after a celebrated CLO production of Into the Woods, the company has added to its storied history of showcasing this magical, moving, funny beast of musical, with an adorable cow and two charming princes among the highlights in a cornucopia of talent and stagecraft.
If you didn’t make it to New York to see the Tony-nominated revival last season, you can still boast that you saw CLO’s 2023 Into the Woods, through Sunday at the Benedum Center. The production features Broadway stars, Broadway-worthy Pittsburgh talent and welcome newcomers, including one moooo-comer. (Sorry not sorry.)
Before we get back to Milky White, impressive new voices for CLO include soprano Kyla Stone’s as Cinderella (Stone starred in the Anastasia national tour) and Jordan Tyson’s brassy Little Red Riding Hood – both perhaps not as familiar as some who dot this stacked cast list, but who should leave you running to your programs to learn their names.
Those two are among a large list of central characters on different journeys to self-discovery. There are the childless Baker and Baker’s Wife – Delmont native Manu Narayan, returning to CLO after 20 years as a Broadway veteran, and the incomparable Patti Murin, best-known for Broadway’s Frozen. The unhappy couple are thrown into a mad quest when The Witch nextdoor – three-time Tony nominee Carolee Carmello – bursts into their home to reveal how a past indiscretion by The Baker’s father led to:
1) The Witch taking The Baker’s sister, Rapunzel (siren-voiced Pittsburgh native Alyssa Gianetti), as her own.
2) A curse that prevents The Baker from fathering a child. 3) A means to end the curse: The Bakers have three days to gather a cape as red as blood (uh-oh, Red), hair as yellow as corn (watch out, Rapunzel), a slipper as pure as gold (you too, Cinderella) and a cow as white as milk …
That would be Milky White, the bovine best friend of Jack of beanstalk fame. Jack owes his boyish charm to Bethel Park’s Joe Serafini, the Disney+ star in a role he was born to play. He has a great scene partner in Milky White, who has morphed into a fully realized character since CLO last mounted Into the Woods, in 2009.
The cow puppet, the work of Allison Park’s Lisa Liebering, a designer, puppeteer and educator, was brought to life onstage by Lu Zielinski (CLO’s Puffs). The puppet and performance are so affecting, that Jack’s faithful friend quickly became an audience favorite. Mine, too.
The Prince (Joe Carroll) finds Cinderella (Kyla Stone) as family members (Christine Laitta, Brady D. Patsy and Melessie Clark) look on, in Into the Woods.
Also earning some of opening night’s loudest applause were CLO’s duo of princely brothers put on a show of dimness par excellence. Or, as Cinderella’s prince (Joe Carroll) puts it: “I was raised to be charming, not sincere.” If you sense chemistry between Carroll and Murin, it’s likely because he played Frozen’s Hans on Broadway during Murin’s tenure as Anna.
Besides playing the aggressively silly, amorous prince, Carroll also leaps into action in the woods as the dastardly Wolf. Along with Tyson’s Red, Narayan’s Baker and Allison Cahill as Granny, he shares a scene that most closely follows the Little Red Riding tale, aided by a revealing wall in the deft set by Paul Wonsek.
Showcased in the hilarious duet “Agony,” Carroll and Rapunzel’s prince, Jhardon Dishon Milton, both displayed dazzling comedic chops and delighted in their CLO debuts.
Into the Woods wraps 22 characters into intertwined tales, most on a collision course to a not-so happily ever after. It is up to Gene Wygandt’s Narrator, doubling as the Mysterious Man, to help the audience and a certain character to keep it all straight. Wygandt (Come From Away) lends an air of gravitas mixed with a twinkle in his eye to both characters.
As with the first CLO production of the season, Anything Goes, part of the fun for Pittsburgh theater-goers is enjoying the talents of well-known local performers, including several as members of Cinderella’s family: Brady D. Patsy as her alcoholic father, Melessie Clark as one of her unsavory sisters, with Haley Holmes of Point Park University as the other and making her CLO debut. As Cinderell’s mother, Christine Laitta exudes attitude and dons some of Duston Cross’s fabulously extravagant costumes.
Cinderella’s mother and ghostly presence is portrayed by Cahill, in her 10th CLO production, while Connor Bahr plays the palace Steward.
Also making her CLO debut, heard but unseen, is the voice of the Giant who pursues Jack after he upends her life – broadcaster Sally Wiggin.
First-act highlights include Serafini’s solo as Jack learns there are “Giants in the Sky” and a favorite song, Stone singing about her experiences running from the prince “On the Steps of the Palace.” She is unable to make up her mind, in a decision that turns the Cinderella story on its head:
So then which do you pick / Where you’re safe, out of sight
And yourself, but where everything’s wrong? / Or where everything’s right / But you know that you’ll never belong?
Finally, you can’t beat Murin reliving revelatory “Moments in the Woods,” or “Last Midnight,” with Carmello raging against the not good, not bad, but just nice folks who she sees as her downfall.
Paul Wonsek’s scenic design and lighting by Paul Miller create a dense tapestry of green woods, with surprises along the way.
Bringing Into the Woods into focus and serving a large cast, each with integral roles, is director Scott Weinstein, with James Cunningham leading the CLO Orchestra through the first Sondheim musical mounted by the company since the previous Into the Woods.
On opening night Tuesday, the one wrong note was the failure of Stone’s and Allen’s microphones during the Prologue, a long and detailed number that launches the characters on their respective paths over the nearly three-hour show, including intermission.
That’s a fix that, happily, can make wishes come true.
TICKETS AND DETAILS
Pittsburgh CLO’s production of Into the Woods is at the Benedum Centre, Downtown, through Sunday, July 2, 2023. Visit, https://pittsburghclo.culturaldistrict.org/production/82446 or call 412-456-6666.