You either like it or you don’t. James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods is one of those musicals. You know right from the start you are dealing with fairy tales, but this is not Once Upon A Mattress or Beauty and the Beast. Into the Woods is Sondheim-heavy, a little on the dark side with a little bit of humor, clever lines, and lots of characters running into each other in the deep dark woods. For some it’s too long, too complicated and too dreary, for others it’s clever, entertaining and a delightful view into the other side of happily every after.
River Region Drama Guild’s (RRDG) summer production of Into the Woods was not too good, not too bad and just right for the small audience of friends, relatives and area residents attending the summer production in Hahnville High School Auditorium.
In his director’s notes, experienced artist and St. Charles Parish native Christopher Melohn states a chance viewing of a PBS presentation of Into the Woods was his first introduction to a Broadway show. The passion and enjoyment he experienced for theatre while watching television, as a grade school student is obvious in his most recent directorial role. Melohn, who also did choreography, does an admirable job of staging an ambitious script with a large cast of young people on a large stage with limited set restrictions. If he can carry off a Sondheim production in a high school auditorium, he deserves a standing ovation. I’m looking forward to see what he takes on next.
Into the Woods relies on the plots – and audience familiarity with those plots – of classic tales, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Cinderella. In Lapine’s script and Sondheim’s music and lyrics, the tales interweave in the woods, of course, with several humorous, sometimes-disastrous spin offs from the traditional stories. And just when you think it’s happily ever after time, it’s intermission. There’s always another side to happiness and the second act cleverly illustrates that the fairy tale life doesn’t go on forever.
For me, Into the Woods is filled with many wonderful moments and great songs – Little Red’s first encounter with the big, bad wolf (“Hello, Little Girl”); Rapunzel’s Prince and Cinderella’s Prince exchanging views on life before and after marriage (“Agony”); and the Witch’s transformation when spells are broken. Melohn directed them well with simple, effective choreography. While duet numbers often saw one actor overshadowing the other, by talent alone, there was amazing synchronization in both singing and line delivery.
With a cast of primarily high school students, with several college students and a couple of adult you would expect to see a diverse range of talent and ability. And you did.
Actor highlights, for me, included Lindsey Price as the Baker’s wife and Courtney Kattengell as Cinderella. Rachel Abbate as Little Red Riding Hood was as funny and as empathetic as the author intended in the original script. These young women sang well, enunciated well and brought the right level of energy to their characters. Price, who has performed in various New Orleans area venues, has an extremely pleasant voice and it’s apparent she is comfortable on stage.
Myles Butler as Rapunzel’s Prince and Zachary Pintado as Cinderella’s Prince worked well together in “Agony” and its reprise. Although their vocal presentation could have been stronger, they were easy to understand, an essential element to enjoying their roles to the fullest. Pintado’s deep voice and haughty expressions come as a surprise out of his lean stature, adding an extra bit of humor throughout the production.
Ethan Andersen as the Mysterious Man was superb in his small, but critical role. Despite a long and cumbersome beard, he spoke distinctly and forcefully.
Alexis Bruza, who enters her sophomore high school year this fall, took on the challenging role of the Witch. I hope she has the opportunity to play the Witch again during her theatrical career. She has a good understanding of the pivotal role, looks great on stage, and moves commandingly on stage and much vocal potential. But whether she was singing or speaking, I found her difficult to understand. The Witch’s lines, especially in the early part of the play, are crucial to plot development and it was disappointing not to hear them distinctly.
Cinderella’s stepsisters take home the Screeching Award! Extra loud shreiks from the two were startling and woke up anyone who had nodded off. Bethany Eppling and Christina Chester did add nice comic relief but looked too pretty to be the mean and ugly stepsisters.
Three large storybooks set against a forest backdrop served as a highly functional set. The opening and closing of the books at appropriate moments continually reinforced the fairy tale mood while bringing needed props and settings to life.
The PBS presentation of Into the Woods inspired Melohn years, perhaps the River Region Drama Guild’s recent production will do the same for its young cast and audiences. That’s a good thing.
Back Row Facts:
Length of play – two hours and twenty minutes, including a late start.
Language and Lewd Factor – no bad language, nothing too suggestive.
Family fitness - even though Into the Woods is fairy tale based, it’s over the head for youngsters. You could bring young children, but would have to spend your time explaining why Little Red Riding Hood is talking to Cinderella.
It’s a puzzlement! Where is the audience? The River Parishes are booming with more people than ever after Hurricane Katrina. Let’s see some support for the arts in St. Charles Parish and surrounding areas.