Leila Dean as the Witch in the CNY Playhouse production of “Into the Woods,” running through June 23, at the ShoppingTown Mall. (AB Photography)
Somehow it’s fitting that the personification of malevolence — the Witch — emerges as the voice of reason in Stephen Sondheim and Lames Lapine’s fractured fairy tale, “Into the Woods,” now gracing the stage at the CNY Playhouse.
Lapine, who wrote the story while Sondheim composed the tunes, once said that the musical’s most unpleasant person, the Witch, would say the truest things while the “nicer” characters would be less-than-honest. In the Witch’s words: “I’m not good; I’m not nice; I’m just right.”
Director Korrie Taylor certainly made the right decision in casting the versatile veteran actress and vocalist Leila Dean in the rich role of the Witch. Not only does Dean sing with power, pitch and conviction, as an actress she makes the most of her character’s stunning mid-show transformation.
The story follows a Baker and his wife who wish for a child; Cinderella, who wishes to attend the King’s Festival; and Jack, who wishes his cow would give milk. When the Baker and his wife learn that they cannot have a child because of the Witch’s curse, the couple sets off on a journey into the woods. Everyone’s wish is granted, but in Act 2 the consequences of their actions return to haunt them.
From the first scenes at the Baker’s hovel, in which the Witch explains how he and his wife have been cursed, Leila Dean draws the audience in like a clever carnival pitchman. She makes an instant human connection — despite wearing nose and chin prosthetics, a tattered hooded robe and an ostentatiously unruly coif — and she never lets go.
Over the often-tedious three-hour show, while other players performed their numbers, I couldn’t wait for her to return to the stage. Leila’s performance is absolutely bewitching in every sense of the word.
Others in the 16-member cast make memorable appearances, notably the cute-as-a-button Briana Jesse Duger as a spunky Little Red Riding Hood, the strong-voiced Corrie Raulli as Cinderella, Derek Powell in the related roles of the Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince, and the eye-flashing Shannon Tompkins as the Baker’s wife.
Local children’s author Bruce Coville brings a hint of gravitas to the proceedings in his dual roles as the narrator and the Mysterious Man. Colin Keating applies his years of musical training to his performance as the barren Baker, Nic MacLane’s youthful countenance makes him a perfectly naïve Jack, Kathy Egloff vocalizes vibrantly as Jack’s mother and gifted singer Terri Kennedy makes an impression in the rather thankless role of Rapunzel.
Musical Director Abel Searor helms a competent nine-piece combo including percussionist Erica Moser whose big bass drum beats out the giant’s pounding footsteps. Sondheim’s music, with its reliance on dissonance, polyphony and chromatic harmonies, can be challenging, but — under Searor’s sure hand — this ensemble rose gamely to the occasion.
Korrie and Josh Taylor designed a functional forest set with three flats up front used to suggest Cinderella’s fireplace, Jack’s cow-bound kitchen and the Baker’s shop. Stephanie Long’s colorful costuming complemented Liam Fitzpatrick’s wonderful wig work and his ever-shifting lighting design.
“Into the Woods,” produced by Michaela Oney and Sarah Anson, runs at 8 p.m., Thursday, Friday and Saturday, June 14, 15 and 16, at 2 p.m. Sunday, June 17, and at 8 p.m. June 21, 22 and 23, at CNY Playhouse, located near the Macy’s entrance at on the second level of ShoppingTown Mall. Tickets cost $25 on Thursday and Sunday and $28 on Friday and Saturday; cnyplayhouse.org; 315-885-8960.
Jason Emerson is editor of the Cazenovia Republican and Eagle Bulletin newspapers.