Opening Nights

Into the Woods

Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center; ends Sun., May 30

The best that can be said about director David Hsieh's ambitious staging of this Stephen Sondheim musical for Repertory Actors Theatre is that, sure enough, it's Into the Woods. Anyone who knows the show will spend most of its running time explaining to anyone who doesn't how much better it's supposed to be, but the production still has all of the glorious music, so, hey, good enough, right? Well . . . 

Sondheim is at his most accessible in the 1987 piece, and Hsieh gets a lot of easy mileage out of this revival. Disarmingly playful (frequent collaborator James Lapine contributed the witty book), Woods deftly rethinks and commingles several traditional fairy tales: Cinderella (Emjoy Gavino) pines for a dashing suitor and gets more than she bargained for in a peacocking Prince (Timothy Glynn); Jack (Eric Ankrim) climbs the bean stalk to slay an enormous foe but later learns that "witches can be right/giants can be good." The show works as both a bright, canny tweak on children's classics and, more ruminatively, as a cautionary lullaby about reducing life's messy adventures to spotless happily ever afters. The production works a little bit as the former and—groan—not a whole hell of a lot as the latter.

So, yes, Hsieh has staged the lush, complex piece divertingly enough and with a minimum of fuss, and the lack of lavish production values hurts it not a bit. Designer Craig Wollam effectively sets the action on a series of oversized pop-up books; the melodies still bounce with an eight-piece band handling the orchestral duties; and Hsieh downsizes the special effects with perfectly acceptable dabbles in Bunraku puppetry, silhouette, and dry ice.

On the other hand, alas, Hsieh has also downsized the show's resonance, hindered by a chipper but not particularly capable ensemble. None of the big leads can hit the top notes of either their songs or their subtext. Christopher J. Anderson's supposedly salacious Wolf is so wan—and frequently inaudible—during his seduction of Little Red Riding Hood (Katie Tupper) that you can't believe her when she later sings that he made her feel "excited and scared." Tupper is only marginally better. Almost more frustrating is the fact that handsome, creamy-voiced Glynn, who would seem to have the raw materials to pull off his princely duties, has been allowed to shamelessly ape Robert Westenberg's performance from the original Broadway production. Only Ankrim gives a professional, polished performance as oddball man-child Jack. When he confidently zips his way through a paean to "Giants in the Sky," you get a glimpse of how much more magical this once upon a time could have been. STEVE WIECKING

Cowboy Mouth

Jewel Box Theater in the Rendezvous; ends Sat., May 8

Word has it Patti Smith and Sam Shepard had an affair back in the day. Just the thought makes us hot. Are there two more grubbily, frumpily sexy modern icons than these two uncombed purebreds? And they got talent, too, in abundance. So putting them together, artistically speaking—hoo yeah. Excellent combo, resulting, one presupposes, in some dusty, neon-lit daydream of snakeskin Americana. So we rush the gate . . . and unwittingly stumble into the postcoital stank of two drunken lovers chasing each other around a room, blithering like idiots. Oops. Wrong keyhole. Feels like a mistake.

Well, the music's good. Everything else about Cowboy Mouth, a 1971 collaboration between Shepard and Smith, is a sweaty, caterwauling pig pile of a one-act screaming match best left to the nostalgic regalia of the two participants. The play drops us midtryst into a heated room, where Slim and Cavale—i.e., him and her—are locked in some sort of Sid-and-Nancy dance of sex, death, and rock 'n' roll. They dash about the room a while, tackling each other; they roll around on a mattress, dry humping; then they insult one another. Then Patti, um, I mean Cavale, jumps up onstage and, backed by a three-piece band (Sean Kelly, Dave Harvey, and John 'Quitty' Quittner), snarls a song or two. They order out from the Lobster Man. Eat. Run around some more.

Inherently, this isn't a disastrous formula. It worked, in slightly altered form, for Tennessee Williams. The problem is that, whereas most plays err on the side of verbose profundity and ersatz philosophical depth, Cowboy Mouth has nothing to say. Walter McGinnis and Carolynne Wilcox really put their backs into the furious grind of Slim and Cavale, but two backs don't always make an interesting beast: McGinnis is just too cherubic to pull off the shaggy, failing musician act, and Wilcox, with her endless gyrations and ribald rants, shoots the wrong kind of sparks—she's more manic small-business owner than punk diva. Not that the material gives them much to work with. What to do when your best line is "I'm sick of telling stories about people killing themselves; it makes me jealous"?

To be fair, the production mercifully clocks in at under an hour—probably half of it very loud music (earplugs are distributed at the door)—and director Brit Sojka keeps the energy nicely amped. Indeed, the whole thing has an air of solipsistic good fun. It just so happens to be the sort of fun—like hearing lovers baby talk or watching a drunken pickup—that ain't all that fun to behold. RICHARD MORIN

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