CENTERVILLE — Into the Woods is a musical by Stephen Sondheim that made its Broadway Debut in 1987. In this very popular retelling of several fairy tales, beloved characters such as Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood go “into the woods” to get the things or gain the experiences they need in order to achieve their hopes and dreams. Of course, there is the witch and the wicked stepmother, too. Throughout the music and the story, Sondheim and book author James Lapine have woven morals and lessons with turns and unexpected twists that have made this musical one of the most celebrated and beloved shows of our time.
When arriving at Centerpointe Legacy Theatre, the first thing that is noticeable is the magnificent set. Set designer Eric Oliphant has obviously paid a great deal of attention to detail. As the title would suggest, the shows action occurs mostly in the woods, so Oliphant ensured that the set looked like a magical wooded area. However, the musical is also all about storytelling, and the importance of words. Oliphant and the set design team decided to include words within the woods, and that was a particularly poignant touch. The lighting design throughout the show was also impressive. The plot of the story is over only a few days, and daytime and night time play important roles. Lighting designer Eric Millward was skilled at transitioning the different times of day and locations in order to help the flow of the story.
A mention also needs to be given to the excellent costuming. It is particularly challenging to bring together several fairy tales that have different expected looks. Michael Nielsen and Sterling Hanks were able to combine the elegance of a royal ball with the humbleness of a baker and the magical mystery of a wicked witch. With such different genres, something like this could appear disjointed, but Nielsen and Hanks were careful enough to make the costumes individualized but still in visual harmony with one another.
The entire cast had strong voices, and most of the lead performers had moments where they excelled. Rebecca Richins, who played Cinderella, was superb in for most of her performance, though the song “On the Steps of the Palace” was one of the best moments of the whole show. Sondheim has a unique gift with words, and when performing a Sondheim show, one of the most important things an actor can do is to make sure that the words and the timing of those words are delivered well to the audience. “On the Steps of the Palace” is a particularly difficult song, and Richins truly rose to the challenge.
Another strong performer was Janessa Bowen who plays Little Red Riding Hood. In the song “I Know Things Now” Bowen was animated, lively, and direct. The song is one of many moments in the play where the audience can see how a character moves away from just a simple fairy tale to realizing the complexities of the real world, and Bowen was able to show this change in her character. The Baker’s Wife, portrayed by Michelle Dodge, had a shining moment with her second act song “Moments in the Woods.” During the song, the Baker’s Wife realizes the difference between momentary excitement and hard work and long-term joy. Dodge has a strong voice and is able to use her strong character acting skills to help communicate the message of the song.
Perhaps the strongest moment of the evening was the pivotal song of “No One is Alone.” This song brings home most of Sondheim’s message and purpose of the show. Richins, Bowen, Jonathon D. Crittenden (who portrayed the Baker), and Aaron Ford (who portrayed Jack) all harmonized beautifully, and Anthony Buck‘s staging and lighting added to the ambience.
The challenge anyone faces with producing a Sondheim show is that even for seasoned actors, the complexity of the words, story, and musically timing are immense. Sondheim is known for the flow and patterns that he weaves into his shows, and missing beats or cues can really harm a production. Many moments in this production were excellent, but the timing was off frequently from the canned music, and much of the time it felt as if the cast was racing to keep up with the music. This production of Into the Woods never quite reached flowed smoothly, and the lack of precise timing led to missing cues, lyrics, entrances, and left the show feeling choppy. By the end of the performance the accumulation of mistakes and difficulties were difficult to ignore.
However, the pluses of the production do outweigh the minuses, and as the production continues I imagine the cast will fix some of the timing issues. Into the Woods is an excellent show for families, and it teaches many good lessons and morals. It is a great choice for an evening out, and to continually support quality productions in the community.