Actor J.J. Caruncho has been fond of dreamcatchers since he was a little boy, assured by his mom that the hoop with its woven strings and dangling feathers would get rid of his bad dreams and let the good ones slip into his head. So it’s no surprise that Caruncho and his sister Natalie picked the name DreamCatcher Theatre for their actor-driven company.
Their first big dream has now come to life in the Carnival Studio Theater at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. As co-artistic directors, the Miami-raised, New York-based siblings have pulled off an ambitious debut with a beautifully sung, well-acted production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods.
This is the full musical that bowed on Broadway in 1987, of course, not the reworked 2014 Disney movie version still playing in theaters.
So those familiar with Into the Woods will be happy to know that the Narrator, Mysterious Man, Cinderella’s Father and (fleetingly) Sleeping Beauty and Snow White are present and accounted for, and that a key character whose death was scratched from the film meets a sad end. Newbies who enjoyed the movie are likely to dig this somewhat different and more intimate journey through the woods, one that features a mix of first-rate New York and Miami actor-singers accompanied by a 10-piece orchestra.
Into the Woods blends familiar fairy-tale characters — Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Jack (of Jack and the Beanstalk fame) — with ones invented by Lapine. A childless Baker and his wife are central to the story, as is the Witch who needs their help in reversing the curse that made her a hag. The piece begins, as so many fairy-tales do, with the words “once upon a time,” and it includes the familiar “happily ever after,” but things don’t end there.
Sondheim and Lapine are more interested in exploring the consequences of blindly pursuing dreams, the realities of growing up, the complexities in child-parent relationships. As in the work of the Brothers Grimm, fear and dark themes are very much a part of Into the Woods, though the musical is also smart, ironic and often quite funny.
The technical and design aspects of the production are a mixed bag. April Soroko’s predominantly gray set economically conjures the woods, the Baker’s shop, Cinderella’s home and Rapunzel’s tower, though there’s no way anyone can climb up for a visit. Bryan Kaschube’s lighting design is good, but the cues aren’t hit crisply; ditto with Rich Szczublewski’s sound design. Alberto Arroyo’s costumes are fairy-tale fanciful, but the wigs (whatever their cost) look like something from a Halloween costume shop.
DreamCatcher certainly hasn’t stinted on assembling an impressive cast. Director Justin Fortunato has big talents and big voices to work with, and he makes the most of the actors’ many gifts.
Before the show’s opening, the casting headline was that Tituss Burgess, with the blessing of the musical’s creators, would be the first male actor to play the Witch. What the Broadway and TV veteran brings to the stage is no stunt. As the under-a-curse Witch, he’s funny, commanding and conniving. Once the spell is reversed, though he may look like a contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Burgess plays it straight, as a mother suffering all sorts of losses. His acting is sharp and nuanced, and his voice, particularly on Stay With Me and Witch’s Lament, is glorious and haunting.
Across the boards, though, the performances are strong. As the Baker’s Wife, Arielle Jacobs, compelling in big musicals and intimate plays, is well-matched with J.J. Caruncho as the fatherhood-skittish Baker. Annemarie Rosano is a lovely, conflicted Cinderella. As her prince, Justin John Moniz (who also plays the ravenous Wolf) has the comic chops and huge voice to pull off Agony with Matthew Janisse as Rapunzel’s Prince. Marina Pires, turning the notes of Rapunzel’s theme into a siren song, finds the character’s comedy, frustration and postpartum craziness. Magan Dee Yantko is a sassy Little Red Riding Hood, and Bruno Vida has a breakout performance as Jack.
Wayne LeGette anchors the show as the Narrator and Mysterious Man, while fellow Florida actors Laura Hodos as Cinderella’s condescending stepmother, Laura Turnbull as Jack’s frustrated mom, Elizabeth Dimon as Granny and the voice of the Giant, and Jeni Hacker as Cinderella’s late mother enrich the company’s vocal mix.
Into the Woods is, for DreamCatcher, one dream caught and delivered. Here’s hoping more will follow.
If you go
What: ‘Into the Woods’ by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine.
Where: DreamCatcher Theatre production in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, through Feb. 15.
Information: 305-949-6722 or www.arshtcenter.org.