SALT LAKE CITY — Right about the time the Baker’s Wife (Stephanie Purcell) and Cinderella’s Prince (Doug Irey) started their song “Moments in the Woods,” I really got lost in how wonderful Into the Woods can be. A strong connection between the actors revealed their characters’ intentions, desires, and reactions. The director skillfully utilized the staging and lighting to emphasize the characters’ spouses to provide a counterpoint to the actions of the soon-to-be-deceivers. I was mesmerized by that moment in the woods.
This was just a moment from Into the Woods at the Grand. I’ve probably seen more productions of Into the Woods than any other theatre show, and for good reason. The music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim are both witty and stimulating. The book by James Lapine so carefully ties together the fairy tales of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and others to reveal new twists on the original stories. Lapine then expands the characters so that they move from caricatures to people facing their true humanity after the “happily ever after” ending. The story and music are so strong that I believe any honest effort to produce this show will have a hard time failing because most of the intended message always gets across. However, in the Grand Theatre’s production, I was only really caught up in the woods for a moment at a time; other times I just quickly passed by on my way to Grandmother’s house, a path I knew so well.
Luckily, that path was never halted by any horrific obstacles. The music performances notably upheld the high standard of Sondheim’s very challenging works. No distracting weak singers tainted the ensemble. Yet, no surprising talent left me awestruck, either. This is perhaps most apparent in the Witch—a character that practically demands to be seen and heard on all levels. Julie Silvestro Waite engaged her songs effectively but never had hoping for an encore. In the opening number she skillfully executed the pronunciation and rhythm of her backstory to the Baker, but at other times, such as “The Last Midnight,” her singing left me disappointed.
While watching this production, I wanted the actors to find more moments in general—more moments creating special characters, and more moments telling stories. There was something lacking from Neil Vanderpool’s direction to help create those unique characterizations. For example when The Baker (Jonathan McBride) in retort tells his father (Gary Pimentel), “No more cursed you can’t undo, left by father’s you never knew,” the father turns his head in reaction, but the connection had not been developed or established between the actors. The action felt like mere blocking; not a true reaction to what his son was saying.
The actors had many moments like this that left me lacking. The princes (Doug Irey and Jake Miskimins) while charming singing “Agony,” never stooped deep enough into their self-conceit to develop their rivalry or allow me to truly laugh at their haughtiness. I wanted Jack’s (Jacob Tonks) experience encountering the “Giants in the Sky” to really touch my soul; while the story was well told, it was not an enthralling moment.
Other scenes, however, exhibited the connection and honesty that can make a show spectacular. The Baker and his wife in “It Takes Two” were funny and honest as the two discuss how their former life changes as they embark on this quest together. In both the words and the actors, I saw how working together on a common goal was changing their lives. The two actors not only told the story, but also showed their characters’ development during this unique moment in the woods.
Nevertheless, I liked this production. There is strength in the story of taking the classic tales and then bringing them back to humanity. I was seriously affected seeing Cinderella (Ashley Gardner Carlson) and her Prince discuss how he could be “truly happy and content at times,” and then in defense of his philandering ways claim, “I was raised to be charming, not sincere.” It was such a parable about how too many enter marriage thinking it will be a perfect fairy tale, but then find idyllic princes or princesses are often not so charming people. And as the Baker carefully held his child and told his son the “story of how it all happened,” I cried, knowing that as my children listen to my stories, they will be affected by my spells, and my wishes. The production at these moments removed the simple fairy tale facade and delved deeper into our personal lives.
The technical expertise created enthralling moments in the show and bridged that gap of reality and fantasy in wonderful visual effects. I applaud the set (Halee Rasmussen) and lighting (Nicholas Cavallaro) designers for their capacity creating a myriad of ambiances. I was calmed by the serene sunburst of a new dawn in “No More” and enchanted by the eerie moonlight of the “The Last Midnight” while the Witch disappeared in bright green flash. Costumers (Amanda Reiser) and makeup (Yancey J. Quick) immersed me in the fairy tales. A slightly German feel to the costumes worked to unite each character’s story collectively and inspire individuality—from the narrator’s little hunting jacket, to Jack’s suspenders and the details on Little Red’s famous cape. Another pleasing choice was to make Cinderella’s stepsisters (Heather Shelley and Lauren Rathburn) actually look pretty in face and fashion, so the vileness was seen through the actors’ actions and not in ridiculous costumes. Makeup design impressed me by creating a realistic looking snout for Wolf. Most often I’ve seen this executed as a separate mask, so the beautiful makeup job was a treat, especially considering that this wolf a couple of scenes later turned into the dashing Cinderella’s Prince.
Would I redo these moments in the woods over again? I definitely would. This production of Into the Woods, while having its flaws, was still a worthy presentation. I wanted more because I laughed, I cried, and I grew a little watching this show. We all have our separate journeys into the woods and anyone who attends this show will relate to their journey and be entertained and taught by this performance.