Into the Woods,” at The SCERA Showhouse; “A Funny Thing Happened on The Way to The Forum

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Two Stephen Sondheim musicals opened in Utah County last weekend, and the shows couldn’t be more different.

“Into the Woods,” playing at the SCERA Showhouse II in Orem, uses the normally just-for-fun medium of fairy tales to examine serious issues of ethics, fate and the vicissitudes of life. It adds depth to characters who have never been deep before.

Meanwhile, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” now at the Little London Dinner Theater in Pleasant Grove, is by its own admission completely devoid of anything weighty, meaningful or important. It is a comedy, and nothing more.

What the productions have in common is that they are well-cast, well-sung and thoroughly enjoyable.

“Into the Woods” is a brilliantly structured show in which the first act is more or less a straight-ahead amalgamation of familiar fairy tales. At the center are the Baker (Brian McFadyen) and his wife (Esther Covington), rendered childless by a curse from the witch (Reyna Ricks) who lives next door. To lift the curse, they have to locate four disparate objects that the witch can use in a potion to restore her youth and beauty.

They head into the woods to find the items, and there they encounter Jack (Steven Ladd), who will soon climb a beanstalk; Little Red Riding Hood (Laura Money), on her way to grandmother’s house; and Cinderella (Natalie Haddock), fleeing the prince after the ball.

These characters, in turn, have their own stories, all of which intersect constantly.

The second act shows what happens after they all lived “happily ever after.” Cinderella has her prince (Tasi Young), but realizes he’s more interested in pursuing young maidens than in actually catching them. Jack and his mother (Tracy Whitlock) are wealthy due to his stealing the giant’s gold-producing goose, but now the giant’s widow is enraged. And the Baker and his wife have a baby, but we all know those come with their own set of problems.

“The woods” represent the trials of life. In real life, things often are not as black-and-white as fairy tales make them seem: Here the witch turns out to be a sympathetic figure, while the “good” characters make some morally questionable choices.

Brian McFadyen and Esther Covington, who have played these roles before (also under the direction of Kathleen Nutt), make for an endearing couple, first humorous then tragic. Laura Money is a sassy Little Red Riding Hood with great facial expressions, and Steven Ladd is an appropriately dumb-headed Jack.

More great casting? David Haenlein’s Mysterious Man (who offers the Baker and his wife enigmatic advice) is delightfully loony. Tracy Whitlock, playing Jack’s mother, berates her boy with great comic agility. And you’ll wonder why a man (Andrew Hunsaker) has been cast as Little Red’s grandmother — until you actually see granny, at which point you’ll be delighted.

Reyna Ricks is dazzling as the witch, who after her transformation into a pretty young thing becomes a vampy, attitude-heavy powerhouse.

“Forum,” directed by Bob Manning, is an all-out, vaudeville-style farce set in ancient Rome. Pseudolis (Aaron Dejesus) is a crafty, shiftless slave who desires his freedom. His master, post-adolescent Hero (Seth Child), promises to set him free if he will help him win the love of Philia (Marilee Spencer).

Philia, alas, is a courtesan (i.e., wife-for-hire) in the house of the rising sun … I mean, the house of Marcus Lycus (Brett Merritt). What’s more, she has just been sold to famed warrior Miles Gloriosus (Adam Daveline).

Meanwhile, Pseudolis is under the watchful eye of the aptly named Hysterium (Patrick Livingston), the head slave who’s a nervous wreck while Hero’s parents (Ryan Wooden and Traci Brewster) are out of town.

From the opening number to the very end, the production is full of non-stop laughs and contagious energy. A broad comedy like this easily lends itself to over-acting — which is the surest way to kill the laughs — but only the omnipresent Proteans (Aaron Spjute and Sam Davis) succumb to the temptation.

Aaron Dejesus forgets he’s the lead and plays Pseudolis as just another cog in the comedy wheel — which is a brilliant thing to do. Seth Child is understated as Hero, earning his laughs in his somewhat limited stage time, and while Traci Brewster gets only one big number as Domina (Hero’s mother), she makes an indelible impression.

Patrick Livingston’s Hysterium is frantic enough to be funny, but not so much that it gets annoying. (His incognito number, “I’m Lovely,” is a scream.) Similarly, Adam Daveline struts and preens as Miles Gloriosus, but restrains himself from going over the top.

It’s hard to choose, but Brett Merritt just might be the funniest of the bunch, playing Lycus as a pouty, flamboyant fop.

Basically, this is a cast full of people with great chemistry together who know the best way to get laughs is to act like getting laughs is the furthest thing from your mind. One hilarious scene blends into another; for what it’s worth, I haven’t laughed this hard at a show in a long time. It’s easily the best production Little London has ever done.

I don't like doubling up reviews, if for no other reason than that they turn out really long. But two Sondheim shows opening in the valley the same weekend was too much to pass up, so here you go.

I wanted to describe Marcus Lycus as a "bitchy gay man," because that's exactly what he was. But you can't say that in the newspaper unless you have a really good reason.

At "Into the Woods," there were two girls in the audience who were obviously friends of the guy who played Jack. Everytime he came onstage, or said anything, or breathed, they would laugh hysterically. It was a really annoying laugh, too. When the play was over, my friends and I beat them to death with baseball bats.

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