By Oline H. Cogdill
The forest explored in Slow Burn Theatre Company’s vigorous production of the musical “Into the Woods” is the place to be.
These woods might seem to be a setting one should fear—and they are. But these woods also are an exciting place of hope, representing a search for identity, the meaning of family, as well as regret, accepting responsibility and the consequences of one’s actions.
That’s a lot to unpack in a musical but Slow Burn vibrantly delves into the myriad layers, finding the pathos, poignancy and humor of “Into the Woods” that the late composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim intended.
Slow Burn picked the right musical to open its 14th season, tapping into this regional theater’s strengths in shaping a large cast of strong singers, solid actors and nimble dancers, directed and choreographed by co-founder Patrick Fitzwater. “Into the Woods” runs through Oct. 29 in the Amaturo Theater at the Broward Center for The Performing Arts.
This is the second time Slow Burn has went “Into the Woods,” having first mounted the musical in 2012. That production made audiences realize that the then fledgling Slow Burn would become a major force in the South Florida theater scene. Slow Burn has fulfilled that promise show after show. As good as that 2012 production was, the 2023 version soars higher.
“Into the Woods” takes a mashup of familiar fairy tales—Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk—and weaves them into one story. Of course, there’s a witch, and cameos of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. At the center is a story originated by Sondheim about a baker and his wife who desperately want a child.
“Into the Woods” is definitely an ensemble piece but Fitzwater adds another element with more of a focus on the three lead female roles, perhaps inspired by the clarion voices and forceful stage presence of these actresses.
Melissa Whitworth, so charming and steely as Mary Poppins in Slow Burn’s 2023 production, takes the role of Baker’s Wife to a higher level. Whitworth’s Wife demands to be an equal partner to her husband. Her confidence in their future and the changes she undergoes in the woods are believable.
As Cinderella, the winsome Kimmi Johnson Grimes illustrates how this young woman, neglected by her family who treat her with contempt, outwits a prince “On the Steps of the Palace,” eventually marries him only to embrace another reality.
But keep your eyes on Jeni Hacker who delivers a powerhouse performance as the Witch. Hacker, long one of South Florida’s top singer-actresses, finds the comedy and sadness of the Witch, whose mothering approach to Rapunzel (Mikayla Cohen) is suspect at best. In many ways, the Witch is a key to “Into the Woods” and Hacker makes the most of it. Her transformation—and we don’t want to give away any spoilers—prompted many ahhs from the audience on opening night.
Adding support are Giselle Watts as a vibrant Little Red Riding Hood; talented Patti Gardner who is fed up with the antics of her son, Jack; and talented Elizabeth Dimon doing triple duty as Cinderella’s mother, Red’s grandmother and the giant. Jinon Deeb as Cinderella’s Stepmother and Kate Stenzel and Kristi Rose Mills as Cinderella’s stepsisters add a sinister humor.
Kudos also go to the male leads.
As the Baker, Ben Liebert credibly goes from wanting to reverse the Witch’s curse, to being angry at his own father to becoming a parent himself. This is Liebert’s debut with Slow Burn, and we hope to see more of him.
As the Princes, Sergi Robles and Ralph Meitzler are the embodiment of entitlement, arrogance, and selfishness. They also are very funny and Meitzler is quite the howler, doubling as the Wolf. As the bewildered Jack, Luis-Pablo Garcia makes a solid stage debut. The ever-reliable Matthew Korinko is the voice of reason as the Narrator and the secretive Mysterious Man.
Aaron Atkinson shows his acting chops—without lines—and as a puppeteer bringing Jack’s cow Milky White to life. In Atkinson’s hands, and we mean that literally, Milky White is an emotional comic relief.
Rick Peña’s lavish costumes, from Cinderella and family’s ball gowns, Red’s cape, the Princes’ tight pants and the Witch’s gorgeous purple outfit, set the tone of each character. Peña also did a masterful job of creating the puppets, such as Milky White, and the masks.
Live music is such a joyful enhancement so credit goes to music director James Mablin and his musicians. Scenic designer Kelly Tighe’s tiered scenery creates a foreboding forest. Lighting designer Clifford Spulock sets the mood with help from assistant lighting designer Stevie Bleich.
A lyric refrain is “careful the wish you make.” South Florida audiences don’t have to wish for a better regional production of “Into the Woods”.
Into the Woods presented by Slow Burn Theatre Company runs through Oct. 29 at the Amaturo Theater, Broward Center For The Performing Arts, 201 SW 5th Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 1 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. Open Captioned performance on Sunday, Oct. 22 at 2 p.m. Running time two hours, 20 minutes with one 20-minute intermission. Tickets start at $54. Call (954) 462-0222 for tickets, at www.browardcenter.org or in person at the Broward Center’s Auto Nation Box Office. Info at www.slowburntheatre.org.