Venture “Into the Woods” at The Carnegie this summer
Let’s get it out of the way. If you’ve read many of my reviews, you know I’m not a big fan of Stephen Sondheim. While I understand why people think he’s a genius, I find some of his work pretentious, non-melodic, and overly complicated. Still, when I know they’ll be well-directed and are well-cast, I look forward to seeing if I can be convinced. (I recently marveled at the beauty of Vince DeGeorge’s gorgeous production of “Sunday in the Park with George.”)
This is the first of a summer series produced at The Carnegie, which includes Rent and George Remus – and all three will be done repertory style throughout the summer. (That means you could see all three in August in one weekend if you wanted!)
Well-directed is an understatement regarding the fantastic job done by Katie Johannigman (who also choreographed). The action is brisk, the choreography dynamic, and she wisely uses The Carnegie’s limited real estate wisely. (Watch your feet if you’re on an aisle; actors come frantically down them throughout the show.) Even the way the characters bump into one another and interact on stage is precise.
Johannigman, who is sadly leaving her post at CCM, takes a minimalistic approach but does so without skimping on the things that matter most. The acting is professional, the movement deliberate, and the overall presentation is on another level.
The costumes (by Cat Schmeal Swope) are modern and practical, as several roles are double (or triple!) cast. I especially loved the use of color and the integration of costumes and props. It’s fun when it’s hard to tell when one tech aspect starts and the other stops.
Steve Goers is the musical director. I wasn’t sure until after the show whether or not there was a live band or if they were using a track, which is a compliment to all involved! Goers not only has created orchestrations that fill the room but has also coached these amazingly talented singers to impeccable vocals.
It’s easier to do that, of course, when working with this level of talent. The cast is primarily made up of CCM musical theatre students, most of whom will go on to tour or work on Broadway at some point in their careers. Tyler J. Martin (“The Baker”) centers the cast with gravitas and a grounded presence throughout the production. Jackson Reagin and Jamal Stone ham it up hilariously as various characters – but that doesn’t take away from their solid vocal performances. August Bagg is a sincere “Jack” (he also plays the Steward), and his performance of show-stopper “Giants in the Sky” is a highlight. Roger Dumas, Jr. has a lovely baritone voice, but even more so keeps the audience engaged as The Narrator/Mysterious Person with his charismatic acting.
The female actors in this production, though, are the most stunning. Sarah Jane Nelson is a vocal powerhouse, but her performance as “The Baker’s Wife” is full of nuance and empathy and conveys every emotion – from pain to silliness. Madison Mosley is a sprite Little Red and an emotional Rapunzel; her soprano voice is stunning. Emma Rose Johnson (an Otterbein student) holds her own as Cinderella (and Granny) and is as likable as anyone could be. Helen Anneliesa Raymond-Goers seamlessly morphs between Jack’s Mother and Cinderella’s evil stepmother while supplying the voice of the Giant in Act Two and does so convincingly despite subtle changes to her costume.
Finally, Sarah Pansing commands the stage every second she steps onto it as “The Witch.” There is power in her voice, but it’s her sheer presence that demands your attention. She is a superstar (and you can make a note of this – if she isn’t famous someday, I’ll quit writing reviews.). (Maybe not, but still, I’m pretty confident in this prediction.)
The Carnegie is notorious for its difficult acoustics. Still, sound designer Avery Reynolds seems to have found a way to make almost every word audible – again, not a small feat with a show with this many lyrics! Tyler Gabbard’s set design again demonstrates why he’s one of the hottest and most in-demand designers in the area. It’s quite a feat to use the same basic set for all three shows in the season but find ways to make them different, too. I’m excited to see what he does with “Rent” and “George Remus.”
This is a long show, two hours and fifty minutes per the program. And Act Two is notoriously inferior to Act One. I could feel the fatigue of the audience once we returned from intermission. But that didn’t stop us all from leaping to our feet for a well-deserved standing ovation for this glorious production.
Catch “Into the Woods” (as well as the other two summer season shows) at the comfortably air-conditioned venue, The Carnegie, in Covington, KY as soon as you can. Tickets and more information can be found here.