INTO THE WOODS (Theatre Horizon): Agony is ecstasy

 Ben Michael and Alex Bechtel (L-R) as Cinderella’s Prince and Rapunzel’s Prince in Theatre Horizon's INTO THE WOODS.

Ben Michael and Alex Bechtel (L-R) as Cinderella’s Prince and Rapunzel’s Prince in Theatre Horizon’s INTO THE WOODS.

Going INTO THE WOODS can be exhausting, but a refreshing cast can make all the difference.

There is some murky territory and the nearly three-hour musical occasionally loses its path, both literally and figuratively. However, as each player seems to outshine the last, Theatre Horizon’s production of INTO THE WOODS remains on firm ground.

In his director’s note, Matthew Decker says the production was built around the talents of the cast and creative team. This is something at which Theatre Horizon has always excelled—taking source material and making it uniquely its own.

Instead of an orchestra, the actors play many of the instruments. Instead of a grand and intricate set, a sparse stage and creative use of props and lighting serve the purpose. Instead of dozens of actors to fill all of the roles, there are 10, each energetically moving, reinventing themselves and wearing different hats (again, figuratively and literally) throughout the production.

As Theatre Horizon tackles Steven Sondheim’s alternative take on fairy tales, the notoriously repetitive score felt drudged through at times. However, these times were the few-and-far-between valleys in a musical that relies on its peaks.

Leigha Kato, who plays Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood in Theatre Horizon's INTO THE WOODS.

Leigha Kato, who plays Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood in Theatre Horizon’s INTO THE WOODS.

The highest of the highlights, and there are many, may be whenever the two princes appeared together, played by Alex Bechtel and Ben Michael. The chemistry during the performance and reprise of their number “Agony” elevates the comic and musical quality of the entire production.

And while each prince is outlandishly charming, each actor is equally charming in their anthropomorphic counterparts, Michael as a wolf and Bechtel as an accordian-playing cow.

Yeah, it’s quirky. But it works.

Rachel Camp as the Baker’s Wife, on the other hand, manages to have chemistry with every member of the cast. Camp shines brightly in solo scenes, and the other characters appear agh their best when performing with her. Except, perhaps, the Baker himself (Steve Pacek), whose height is a gut-wrenching scene with the “Mysterious Man” (Charlie DelMarcelle) near the end.

Each playing several roles, the rest of the cast cannot go unnoticed. Kala Moses Baxter wins with sass; Michael Doherty is a comic force to be reckoned with; Liz Filios nails the breathy naiveté of a princess; Kristine Fralich has all the power you could ask for as the Witch; and Leigha Kato had arguably the best vocals of the night.

A small theater might back away from such an ambitious project, but director Matthew Decker embraces the challenges by managing to turn the small cast and absence of expensive set dressing and effects into part of the quirky charm. Each time an actor is rushed or temporarily missing just after a scene change, it’s played with a wink and gets a laugh.

They’re in on the joke. And being in on the joke with them is the shot of energy that gets this production out of the woods.[Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb Street, Norristown, PA] February 5-March 1, 2015; theatrehorizon.org.

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