Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast

Into the Woods
Jump Encore
Review by William S. Oser | Season Schedule

Also see Bill's review of Falsettos

The Cast
Photo by Courtesy of Jump Encore
This trip Into the Woods (music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine) began when I learned the co-director would be Jessica Babcock, whom I was familiar with from appearances on Manatee Players' stages. The local actors in the cast are not those with lots of major credits in productions by our three nationally known community theater companies, but I am always interested in talent lurking beneath the surface. So I looked forward to a trip to Hunsader Farms for one of my favorite musicals presented outdoors, under a grove of scrub pine and oak trees.

It is a miracle that Jump Encore was able to present this very complicated musical without the resources of Manatee Players, The Players, or Venice Theatre—or at least one of the two well-regarded performing arts schools, Booker HS VPA in Sarasota or Manatee School for the Arts. Yes, some of the technical aspects are rough around the edges, but Into the Woods is a murderous show to memorize and the cast has stepped right up to Sondheim's endless cascading lyrics, famously satirized in Forbidden Broadway as "into the words," and mastered them. (Though, it didn't help that on opening night moments of light precipitation hampered the ongoing story and just at "Last Midnight," a ten-minute pause was called when a heavier shower passed.)

Bravo to the entire 11-member cast because all the big numbers are solidly delivered. New to me, Derek Brookens makes a handsome Baker. His performance catches fire in the scene with The Mysterious Man, played by Chris Caswell. "No More" really begins the musical launch toward the ending. Opposite him, Danae Deshazer as The Baker's Wife provides warmth and a solid presence.

It seems that every time I see this musical locally there is some unusual casting offered. Manatee Players used Judah Woomert, then probably about 11 or 12 years old, as the narrator and mysterious man. This production has cast Kelly Leissler as The Witch. I am not sure I find this casting stunt completely convincing, but that has little to do with Mr. Leissler's excellent performance. I first saw Mr. Leissler as the Toxic Avenger in the musical of that title at Venice Theatre, and he has an affinity for odd-ball characters. There was one moment when I did think that the thrust of a man's voice was a plus, at the start of "Children Will Listen."

Melanie Bierweiler is a lovely Cinderella, regal when called for, warm and more the peasant in the woods of the second act. Her singing is lovely but, at the performance I attended, she was hampered by a mic that went in and out. Josh Devine is perfectly geeky and childlike as Jack. I first saw this young man in 13 when he was 13, five years ago, so he is 18 but plays younger. He delivers an assured "Giants in the Sky." Jessica Babcock is a sassy Little Red. The scene with her granny and the wolf is well managed. Her singing in "I Know Things Now" and the many ensemble parts is assured. Todd Maddex, also new to me, is Cinderella's Prince, the Wolf, and one of Cinderella's stepsisters. He cuts a handsome figure on stage and when he and Tanner Fults as Rapunzel's Prince ride in on their "horses," it adds to the whimsy built into this piece. Mr. Fults sings strongly in the "Agony" duets.

Ashley Figalow as Rapunzel shows a lovely voice singing her "light-hearted air." She has nice stage presence and I wish she could land more prominent roles. Danielle Snelling contributes portrayals of two mothers, Jack's and Cinderella's stepmother, nicely. Chris Caswell's take on The Mysterious Man is not what I might have expected from an actor who I has essayed Sweeney Todd memorably in a reduced production, as well as Hannibal Lecter in Silence, the Musical. He plays down the mystery and plays up being The Baker's Father. He seems always on the verge of telling him their relationship, long before the ending.

Musical direction is under the solid leadership of Emily Croome, who keeps Sondheim's kaleidoscopic score rhythmically taut. All the excellent renditions of the score's best songs do not come out of nowhere.

Co-directors Jessica Babcock and Cory Boyas have done a fearless job of holding this musical together. Just getting through it is a major feat, getting through it with many memorable moments is totally commendable.

Technical elements are perhaps a bit on the scrappy side. Ms. Babcock's costumes are a bit of a hodge podge, fine in some instances, not as much in others. Lighting design by Ethan Vail is probably compromised by a severe lack of resources, as he is always a dependable talent in his field.

Check out Jump Encore's website as they have upcoming productions of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, Jr. and The Addams Family next spring.

Into the Woods runs through November 14, 2021, at Hunsader Farms, 5500 Co Rd 675, Bradenton FL. For more information, visit

Baker: Derek Brookens
Baker's Wife: Danae DeShazer
Witch: Kelly Leissler
Cinderella: Melanie Bierweiler
Jack: Josh Devine
Little Red: Jessica Babcock
Cinderella's Prince/Wolf: Todd Maddex
Rapunzel/Cinderella's Mother: Ashley Figalow
Rapunzel's Prince: Tanner Fults
Jack's Mother/Stepmother: Danielle Snelling
Narrator/Mysterious Man: Chris Caswell