Into the Woods

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“Perhaps nothing touches our imagination more deeply than a story that begins with those four magic words—‘once upon a time’”, said Angela Lansbury at the 1988 Tony Awards, introducing Into the Woods. With ten Tony nominations and eventually winning three, this enchanting musical, with book by James Lapine and a timeless score by Stephen Sondheim, seems to be a new favorite of producers and theatre companies nowadays. So when I heard that Point Park University’s Conservatory Theatre Company was wishing to open its 2015-2016 season with this musical and bring the “Sondheim fever” back to Pittsburgh, besides bursting with excitement as a fan, my first thought was also, how it says in the show, “be careful what you wish for.”

The story begins with a childless baker and his wife, who learned that they have to break a curse placed by a witch to start a family. And on this quest of finding the magical objects that the witch requires, they also walk into a journey of self-exploring and soul searching. They start to interact with characters from other familiar childhood stories in the woods, and meet the consequences of all the wishes and choices they make earlier. With four classic fairytales (Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood) intertwined into one plot line, performed by a huge cast of 20, Into the Woods naturally comes as a challenging task on multiple theatrical aspects, such as staging, design, and actors’ music skills. And the storytelling part also demands high attention, as it’s crucial to grasp the darker personality of each character and hence deliver the generally more “realistic” feeling of the over narration compared to other “Happily Ever After” fairytales.

Leading the expedition in this production are Ben Northrup (Baker), Maggie Roos (Baker’s wife), Kayla Muldoon (Little Red Riding Hood), Mason Lewis (Jack), and Nicole Stouffer (Cinderella). Although Mr. Northrup’s portrait of the baker didn’t really catch much attention until in Act II with his soulful rendition of the song “No More”, his on stage dynamic with other characters is generally convincing and highlights the center moral issue of his character’s personality perfectly. Ms. Muldoon’s Little Red Riding Hood is surprisingly violent but appropriately funny. Mr. Lewis’s Jack is genuinely innocent and childish. Ms. Stouffer sings beautifully in her solo number “On the Steps of the Palace” and the ending “No One is Alone”, with a Cinderella that is probably most “Disney” in the show. The biggest star of the team turns out to be Ms. Roos, who plays Baker’s wife with a great depth and brings out the different dimensions and internal conflicts of the character delicately.

For any production of Into the Woods, the cast of the witch is probably the most important casting decision to make. From Bernadette Peters to Meryl Streep, each actress’s portrait of this iconic role dominates the dramatic atmosphere of the entire musical. In this production the witch is played by Ms. Lucy Moon Fitzsimons, who gives this role a wilder, comedic, but at the same time more emotional touch. Her delivery of the witch’s signature song “Stay with Me” was very moving. And her show-stopping rendition of the “Last Midnight” generates the most spectacular ending and the longest applause of the night.

The rest of the cast all musically add a great layer to the overall harmony. But there were also some occasional melo-comedic choices that rather weaken the characters. Honorable mention Paul Hambidge, whose rich voice gives Rapunzel’s Prince an exhilarating boost in the duet “Agony”, and Bebe Mae Tabickman, whose always-angry and over-the-top Jack’s mother won the most laughter of the night.

The pacing and momentum of each scene is the trickiest part of the show. With multiple story lines happening at the same time, it’s definitely hard to maintain the dramatic tension while making sure every musical moment is delivered precisely. Director Zeva Barzell innovatively incorporated several modern elements into the whole stage presentation, such as a digital projection on the theater’s dome to symbolize the moon and the woods. The stage rhythm of the prologue and all the big numbers were all very exciting and well choreographed.

The theatrical design in this show is probably the most critical part for all the fairytales to come to life. Cathleen Crocker-Perry’s costumes and Courtney Dilla’s hair and makeup managed to grasp the most essential quality of each character and the results are less luxury but still magical. Britton Mauk’s scenic design gives a refreshing new structure to the classic multiple-story line staging, although at a few scenes the action of the actors on set did created some unexpected awkward laughter, as the technical limits unpreventably broke the dramatic moments, but overall it works understandably fine with all the scene changes.

Stephen Sondheim once said in an interview, “If I don’t write about life, I don’t write about anything.” Into the Woods is one of these musicals that perfectly exemplifies this principle by the composer—yes it’s about princesses and magic beans and fairytales, but it’s also about life, about the real ethical issues and moral dilemmas and personal changes we face and encounter everyday. With a beautiful score, a non-traditional story line, and a talented cast, the darker sides of all these classic stories will gradually reveal one by one before you eyes. At the end of the day, it’s a story about imagination, about how should we tell our stories. And with the positive energy and intricate artistry presented by Conservatory Theatre Company, once you close your eyes and start to listen, all there left is magic.

Presented by Conservatory Theatre Company

Directed by Zeva Barzell

Music Directed by Camille Villalpando Rolla

Book and Lyrics by James Lapine

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Designed by Cathleen Crocker-Perry (costumes), Courtney Dilla (hair and makeup), Britton Mauk (scenery), Scott Nelson (lighting), Steve Shapiro (sound), and Jessi Sedon-Essad (projection).

Starring Bruce Franz (Narrator/Mysterious man), Nicole Stouffer (Cinderella), Mason Lewis (Jack), Bebe Mae Tabickman (Jack’s Mother), Ben Northrup (Baker), Maggie Roos (Baker’s wife), Adriana Milbrath (Cinderella’s Stepmother), Leah Bebee (Florinda), Brittany Pent (Lucinda), Zane Travis (Cinderella’s Father), Kayla Muldoon (Little Red Ridinghood), Lucy Moon Fitzsimons (Witch), Anna Robbins (Cinderella’s Mother/Snow White), Taylor Warren (Wolf/Cinderella’s Prince), Marissa Mayer (Granny), Lexie Rohlf (Rapunzel), Paul Hambidge (Rapunzel’s Prince), Bradley Johnson (Steward), and Anna Strickland (Giant/Sleeping Beauty)

Special Thanks to Conservatory Theatre Company for the complimentary press tickets. The show runs until October 25th. For more information about their season productions and ticketing, check out their website

Performance Date: Friday, October 16, 2015