PROVO — Into The Woods at the Echo Theatre is a charming production with messages about growing up, accepting responsibility, and ultimately dealing with wishes and their consequences will resonate well with Utah audiences. With an intimate setting, live musicians, and a cast of talented singers, the Echo Theatre’s production of Into The Woods is sure to leave most patrons with a smile on their face.
With music and lyrics by the renowned Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, the musical weaves together various classic fairy tales, such as Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, and Rapunzel. The storyline of a baker and his childless wife who want to start a family are what move the plot along. Through them and their interactions with other characters they explore how choices and wishes have both good and bad results.
The moment I stepped into the Echo Theatre I was surprised, excited, and yet also unsure. Not being a native to Provo I had never been to (or even heard of) the Echo Theatre. But I always love going into a theatre with no idea what to expect and then leaving, usually with a fondness of the theatre and the production that took place there. While the Echo Theatre is unique for the fact that it is located on the upper level of a traditional brick building what really was surprising was the quite small space in which the production was held. With a small raised stage and padded folding chairs, the audience is right there with the actors, instead of separated by a great distance. When I sat down I had two thoughts: 1) this production could be very poorly done since it’s such a small space, and 2) the charm of this small venue could allow for the audience to be pulled into this musical. I easily expected the first scenario to occur, but as the production progressed (really hitting its stride in act two) the cast and their performances grew on me. Their clear heartfelt delivery seemed to resonate with me as they sang the beautifully written songs about making hard choices, learning to grow, and facing their consequences.
Of the three elements of musical theatre (acting, singing, and dancing), the cast of Into The Woods was by far strongest with their element of singing. It is important to note, however, that there wasn’t much choreography – as evident by the productions staff’s choice of combining both roles of music director and choreographer (Jennifer Scott Madsen). Director Melissa Leilani Larson chose a good group of well trained voices, as was apparent in almost all the cast. The only exception was Jack’s Mother (played by Alisa Anglesey). While singing didn’t seem to be Anglesey’s strong suit, she managed to sing/talk her part mostly effectively and I commend her for not allowing her lack of strong singing ability to diminish her character. Strong singer Julianna Boulter Blake’s performance of the Baker’s wife was simply a joy to watch. Her obviously trained voice had no troubles following the music, even when the pianist (Zach Hansen) was off. Her solid voice seemed to capture the spirit of the simple baker’s wife and longing desire to have a child.
While I enjoyed the pure and beautiful voices, I often failed to see a strong sense of character development and interaction between the main characters. This was especially evident in the interactions between the baker (played by Ben Cummins) and his wife (played by Julianna Boulter Blake). Although they were not cold and distant with each other, I failed to see their love and commitment to each other. Their devotion and joy of being able to start a family seemed somewhat happy at best and apathetic at other times. Their lack of deep investment in each other and their family goals was more prevalent in the first act than in the second act in which they seemed to be more devoted to each other and their cause.
The standout performance by Jordan Kramer (who played the character of Jack) was one of my favorite aspects of the show. His childish gleam, often shrill voice, and priceless funny facial expressions are what brought the character of Jack to life. In almost every interaction with each character he brought an authentic response that only his character of Jack would have had.
I loved the entire set (designed by Jeff Blake) for this production. From the floor (which was covered in actual words from the script) to the whimsical tower made of books, each piece and prop was well thought out. The revolving trees in the woods served many functions and were a good use of the small space.
With classic stories and deep messages that audience members of almost any age can connect with, the production of Into The Woods at the Echo Theatre is pleasant piece of theatre to watch. With a well talented cast and intimate setting it makes for a great evening of family fun entertainment.