DIVA TALK: Returning to The Woods

DIVA TALK: Returning to The Woods INTO THE WOODS
It's hard to believe that ten years have passed since I first ventured Into the Woods at the Martin Beck Theatre. I remember catching the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical for the first time while home on a break from college, eagerly anticipating seeing not only a new Sondheim musical but one that starred Bernadette Peters. Ten years later, I was equally excited to see the show, this time full aware of the richness of a score that includes "No One Is Alone," "Children Will Listen" and a host of other delights.

INTO THE WOODS
It's hard to believe that ten years have passed since I first ventured Into the Woods at the Martin Beck Theatre. I remember catching the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical for the first time while home on a break from college, eagerly anticipating seeing not only a new Sondheim musical but one that starred Bernadette Peters. Ten years later, I was equally excited to see the show, this time full aware of the richness of a score that includes "No One Is Alone," "Children Will Listen" and a host of other delights.

Watching the stellar cast at the Broadway Theatre this past Sunday afternoon had the feeling of a reunion with a bunch of old friends. Like the much-acclaimed Encores! series at City Center, the stage was filled with orchestra members, with two rows of chairs in front of the musicians and about five or six microphone stands set at the very front of the stage. Paul Gemignani, Sondheim's longtime conductor, was also in charge at this benefit concert, and Gemignani even had the honor of pushing over Milky White, the cow, when it died (briefly) in the first act.

There was a palpable sense of electricity that filled the theatre as the audience eagerly awaited the commencement of the musical that deals with wishes, paths chosen, individual and community responsibility and, most importantly, the way we raise our children. As the performers made their entrances from the back of the stage, down a center staircase, enthusiastic applause greeted each cast member. The first actor to enter was Tom Aldredge, the narrator, who announced, "Once upon a time in a far-off kingdom lived a fair maiden"; Kim Crosby, in superb voice, as Cinderella followed to much applause; then came a grown-up Ben Wright as Jack; the humorously appealing Chip Zien as the childless Baker; the always glorious Joanna Gleason as the Baker's Wife; plus Joy Franz as Cinderella's stepmother, Kay McClelland and Lauren Mitchell as the stepsisters, a bewildered Barbara Bryne as Jack's Mother, Danielle Ferland as Little Red Ridinghood and the one-and-only Bernadette Peters as the Witch. Peters, one of Broadway's best, received an extended ovation, and before she began her "Witch's Rap," she positioned a long crooked nose on top of her own.

The performers were all dressed casually, although a few attempted some sort of costume: Chuck Wagner (the original Rapunzel's Prince) performed the role of The Wolf bare-chested, delivering a seductive "Hello, Little Girl" to Ferland's red- and later fur-caped Little Red Ridinghood. Peters also donned a black hooded overcoat, which she removed toward the end of the first act to reveal the beautiful witch beneath, albeit one without any magical powers.

One of the many treats of the concert was to hear Peters (with Pamela Winslow's Rapunzel) sing "Our Little World," the new tune that was added to the London production of Into the Woods, a song that contends that "our Little world is big enough for me--perfect" while poking fun at the "golden hair" obsession of both the Witch and Rapunzel. Another welcome addition to the evening was Jonathan Dukochitz, who portrayed Rapunzel's Prince, a role he eventually played on Broadway. Dukochitz was a charming, full-voiced Prince who managed to wring every ounce of humor from his duets with Wagner in both versions of "Agony."

Highlights of the first half included the magical opening number that spotlights the many characters who will venture into the woods; Peters' hysterical "Witch's Rap" (I've seen many witches, and none has been able to exact as much humor and from the part as Peters); Danielle Ferland's perky "I Know Things Now," where Little Red Ridinghood realizes that "nice is different than good"; Ben Wrights' heartfelt "Giants in the Sky"; the aforementioned "Agony"; the charming duet between the Baker and his wife, "It Takes Two"; Cinderella's beautiful tones in "On the Steps of the Palace"; and Peters again in "Stay with Me," which managed to be chilling and touching at the same time. I really had forgotten how many riches there are in Sondheim's score, which also boasts "Moments in the Woods," "Last Midnight," "No More," "No One Is Alone" and "Children Will Listen" in the second half.

What was so likable about the concert was not only the sense of elation from the audience but also the apparent joy that the performers were experiencing while revisiting the wonderful score and the abundant humor in the script. The original production was such a stunning one- with its beautiful costumes, make-up and sets--that one did miss such visual humor as Peters climbing Rapunzel's hair, but I did enjoy the laid back manner in which the show was presented. Although there were a few mishaps along the way (a cow that wouldn't eat, a miscue from the orchestra), all could be forgiven when Peters launched into a thrilling rendition of "Last Midnight" or when the cast joined their voices at the end for the final stirring message of the show, "Children Will Listen": "Careful the things you say/Children will listen. Careful the things you do/Children will see. And learn. Children may not obey/But children will listen. Children will look to you/For which way to turn/To learn what to be./Careful before you say,/ "Listen to me." Children will listen."

The concerts benefited both God's Love We Deliver and Friends in Deed. For more information about these worthy charities, contact God's Love We Deliver at 166 Avenue of the Americas; 212-294-8100, http://www.aidsnyc.org/glwd or Friends in Deed at 594 Broadway, Suite 706; 212-925-2009; http://www.stepstones.com/friends.

BETTY BUCKLEY
For those of you in the metropolitan area, you're in store for a treat this weekend, when Betty Buckley returns to the concert stage on Saturday, November 15. Buckley is set to perform at the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts (at Brooklyn College) tomorrow night beginning at 8pm. Buckley, who will be backed by Kenny Werner and the rest of her usual combo of musicians, will take to the stage of BCBC and will entertain with songs from Cats, Sunset Boulevard, Triumph of Love and other gems culled from her many solo albums. BCBC is located at the Walt Whitman Theatre on the campus of Brooklyn College. Tickets, which range from $28-$37, may be ordered by phone at 1-718-951-4500 or in person at the box office (Tuesday-Saturday 1-6 PM). Tickets are also available through TicketMaster at 212-307-7171. . . Buckley will also make an appearance on the "Today Show" shortly (date to be announced). . .

BARBARA COOK
Speaking of fabulous performers, the legendary Barbara Cook will also make a rare New York concert appearance this December at Queens Theatre in the Park. Cook, who won a Tony Award for her work in The Music Man, will perform in Queens on Saturday, December 27 at 3pm and 8pm. Queens Theatre in the Park is located in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, just off exit 9E of the Grand Central Parkway (near Shea Stadium). Tickets range from $22-$25 and may be purchased by calling 718-760-0064.

PATTI LuPONE
Our Evita gal officially opens in her latest Broadway play, The Old Neighborhood, this Wednesday evening, November 19 at the Booth Theatre (222 West 45th Street). Neighborhood, a new work by David Mamet, also stars Peter Riegert, and tickets are available through Telecharge by calling 212-239-6200.

IN OTHER NEWS . . .
ABC was so happy with the ratings and creative success of Cinderella that the network has pledged to produce one TV musical a year . . . Marie Osmond will be the new Anna in The King and I come December when Faith Prince departs the role after winning critical acclaim in this Rodgers and Hammerstein revival . . . The Vienna portion of the Florence Lacey Evita tour has been eliminated from the tour schedule . . . Dee Hoty will star in The Show Goes On, a tribute to the works of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt (The Fantasticks) for the York Theatre Company at the Theatre at Saint Peter's Church. Performances begin December 10 and runs through January 18; Hoty will be joined onstage by the composers as well as Emma Lampert, Drew Scott Harris and an acclaimed Jean Valjean, J. Mark McVey.

IN CABARET. . . Last Friday night I caught Natalie Gamsu's cabaret act at Fez in the East Village. Gamsu, a native South African, broke into the New York cabaret scene in the early part of the decade, performing a series of shows at Eighty Eight's while making guest appearances at The Russian Tea room and the now defunct Ballroom. Gamsu possesses a powerful contralto that has some of the dark timbres of Karen Akers, although not as beautifully controlled and shaded. In her current act the statuesque performer presented a show that traced her life history, from a young girl in South Africa who tried not to stare at her grandmother's varicose veins to a Manhattan resident who has loved, lost and finally accepted New York as her home. Most of the material Gamsu chose to sing was unfamiliar to this listener, although she did include a few older pop songs like "Love Will Keep Us Together." Gamsu has such a dramatic presence that one wishes she would perform songs that challenge her more as an actress, perhaps some standards or a few tunes from the musical theatre canon. She also possesses a good sense of humor; in fact, one of the highlights of her set was a comic version of "I Will Survive."

*I came across a recent article by Barry Singer in The New York Times that asked some of the more prominent cabaret singers to choose a favorite song. I thought you would be interested to read some of the responses:

Andrea Marcovicci chose "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach. Says Marcovicci, "It's one of the shortest short stories in song ever, a perfect short story, with the most perfect emotional arc that starts in a place where everything is O.K., and then by the bridge you realize something's terribly wrong. Musically, it's exquisite to sing, it just feels beautiful in the throat, but I'm talking as an actress. It covers the tragic gray area between love and loss."

Amanda McBroom chose a song she wrote with Gordon Hunt entitled "Errol Flynn." McBroom comments, "It's about my father. My father was a movie actor in the 40's--the song is about his life in the movies and his friendship with Errol Flynn, but mostly it's about people's dreams not coming true and the memory of watching my father not fulfill his dreams. It always brings me close to him when I sing it, yet other people seem affected by it, too. Which is really nice. And I hope not too hubristic."

Margaret Whiting picked "Someone To Watch Over Me," the classic Gershwin tune. Whiting relates, "It's the first song my father taught me. My father, who was a great friend of George Gershwin's, sat down one day and said, 'This is my favorite song,' and he played it for me, and it's been mine too ever since. It's about looking and praying and asking for love, which is what three-quarters of all great songs are written about. The rest are about what happens after you get it."

K.T. Sullivan voted for Noel Coward's "If Love Were All" and adds, "It sums up the life of a cabaret singer: 'I believe that since my life began the most I've had is just a talent to amuse.' And of course that talent brings sadness sometimes, as the song says, some loneliness, some hard times, some hard knocks. But it's the life we've chosen. 'Heigh-ho, if love were all!' Bittersweet. And that's what's so great about cabaret. Those things can be portrayed on a very subtle and personal level." DIVA OF THE WEEK
Well, it's a pretty easy choice this week. Although the entire cast of Into the Woods deserves kudos, the standout was, of course, Bernadette Peters, who always manages to bring down the house, shining in all of her solos: "The Witch's Rap," "Stay With Me," "Last Midnight" and "Children Will Listen." By the way, you can take Peters home with you, so to speak: The new Beauty and the Beast video, subtitled Enchanted Christmas is now available in stores. BP can also be seen on CBS on November 23 in the TV film "What the Deaf Man Heard" and on ABC on December 14 in the teledrama "Holiday in Your Heart."

Next week: Patti LuPone opens on Broadway and Betty Buckley in concert...

That's all for now. Happy diva-watching!--

By Andrew Gans