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Cast Shines in a Melodic “Into the Woods”

Many critics remember their first foray “Into the Woods.”

The musical, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, has the power to strike a chord with viewers young and old by virtue of its captivating storytelling, music, and a message that adapts to a variety of movie and musical theater versions. Director Jake S. Stepansky ’17 staged his take on the show on Dec. 8 and 9 at the American Repertory Theater’s OBERON stage, delivering a production carried by a triumphant cast, although the venue and blocking left much to be desired.

The cast of “Into the Woods” demonstrated their singing chops from the first bars of the show’s “Prologue,” which introduces several characters—including an earnest Cinderella (Arianna N. Paz ’19); a hungry Little Red Riding Hood (Rachel Kahn ’20); a dopey Jack at this point sans Beanstalk (Eli Troen ’20); an old and screechy witch (Ashley LaLonde ’20); and a pragmatic baker (Derek P. Speedy ’18) and his even-more-pragmatic wife (Eliza B. Mantz ’18) struggling to have a child—who ultimately will become tangled up in one another’s Grimm Brothers-esque stories. Paz’s voice sparkled effortlessly, as Cinderella sat dressed in rags wishing to attend the Prince’s ball, and LaLonde as the Witch also tackled Sondheim’s difficult lyrics with incredible, easy diction. “Rooting through my rutabaga, / Raiding my arugula and / Ripping up the rampion,” the Witch screeches in a tongue-twister of an introduction, describing how the baker’s father uprooted her precious garden. As a simultaneously fun-loving and sincere Baker’s Wife, Mantz sings her part sweetly, and manages to keep the gang in check and the plot moving forward. The musicians on the small, central platform stage where the bulk of the action takes place supported the singers and followed music director Brian J. Ge ’18 attentively throughout the evening.

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While several smart prop choices made good use of the cramped cabaret table-filled space, Oberon, time and time again, proves a tricky space for anything less than a completely seat-less, immersive performance like “The Donkey Show,” a motion-filled, discotheque “Midsummer Night’s Dream” which was created by Diane M. Paulus ’88 and continues to book the venue weekly. The good news, first: When Cinderella sang to her bird-friends for help in plucking lentils from her evil stepmother’s hearth, one of the many black-clad ensemble members blew tasteful bubbles to stand in for what could have been clunky, space-consuming props. In addition, at any given time, one of the ensemble members, maneuvered a papier-mâché cow’s head to represent Jack’s cow, Milky White. And lumpy masks disfigured the Wolf (Jake A. Corvino ’19) and the Witch, aiding the actors’ stunning transformations into these characters.

At the same time, however, Oberon’s nooks and crannies—and Stepansky’s directorial choices to use the entire space—obscured much of the action. From certain seats, for example, people could not see Cinderella grieve at the graveside of her soft-voiced mother (Madison E. Deming ’18). Those hemmed in at the front of the house also missed out on several balcony scenes. And the refreshingly youthful rendition of “Agony” (by Corvino and Richard M. Feder ’18) worked well only if it could be seen, which left those with poor vantage points whipping their heads to try to catch a glimpse.

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Before the (proverbial) curtain rose, this version of “Into the Woods” welcomed audience members into a warm and inviting Oberon, making it clear that the show would attempt to unfold using all of the assets that the venue could offer. Guests over 21 could purchase festive themed drinks—how about a Gin Slipper, Rapunzel’s Tower, or Spicy Red, thank you very much?—and mingled against a backdrop of gauzy white curtains, twinkling string lights, and smooth jazz. Despite the neck-crane-inducing blocking, this rendition of “Into the Woods” with its talented cast reaffirmed that children, of whatever age, will listen. And see. And learn.

—Staff writer Melissa C. Rodman can be reached at melissa.rodman@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @melissa_rodman.

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