Witches, Ghosts, and Wolves! Community Players go Into the Woods
by Bob McLaughlin and John Lieder
For the second musical of the 95th season, Community Players is presenting Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s contemporary take on traditional fairy tales, Into the Woods.
Having won the Pulitzer Prize for their previous collaboration, Sunday in the Park with George, composer Sondheim and librettist Lapine began considering fairy tales, the narrative elements these tales tend to have in common and the cultural functions they perform, and wondered what would happen if you took some familiar characters—Little Red Ridinghood, Cinderella, Jack of beanstalk fame, Rapunzel—and brought them together as they pursue their wishes, add the Witch that is so often the antagonist in these tales, and maybe create a new story, about a Baker and his Wife, to tie the disparate narratives together. The result is a fairy-tale mash-up, as the characters venture into the woods, help and hinder each other, and race toward the promised happily ever after. The authors also ask us to consider what happens after happily ever after, when the characters have to face the consequences of the things they’ve done to make their wishes come true.
Into the Woods was initially developed at the Off-Broadway Playwrights Horizon Theater, tried out at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater, and eventually opened on Broadway on November 5, 1987. The original cast featured Bernadette Peters as the Witch, Joanna Gleason as the Baker’s Wife, Chip Zien as the Baker, and Kim Crosby as Cinderella. It ran for 765 performances and won three Tony Awards, for Best Book, Best Score, and Best Actress (Joanna Gleason). (It lost the Best Musical award to some little-remembered show named Phantom of the Opera.)
The musical has had a long afterlife. In addition to a national tour and several London productions, it was revived on Broadway in 2002, with Vanessa Williams as the Witch. In 2012 Shakespeare in the Park gave the show an environmental staging with a cast featuring Amy Adams, Jessie Mueller, and Donna Murphy. In 2016 the Fiasco Theater’s minimalist production (eleven actors, no sets to speak of) played Off-Broadway and then toured. And, of course, in 2014 Disney released a big-screen film adaptation, with Meryl Streep, James Corden, and Anna Kendrick.
Sondheim can be notoriously difficult to master and Into the Woods is a prime example. Lyrics are often sung faster than folks normally speak. Melodies are often sweet but then some are harsh and dissonant. Singers are often made to sing against, rather than with, each other. Fortunately, our production boasts a cast loaded with talent and experience. The cast members are not only up to the challenge, but seem to revel in it and are genuinely excited to be a part of some great musical theatre.
Leading the cast is Cris Embree in a tour de force role as the Witch. No stranger to Sondheim, Cris played Mrs. Lovett in the Players’ production of Sweeney Todd. And speaking of “no stranger to Sondheim,” our Narrator/Mysterious Man is played by our resident Sondheim scholar Bob McLaughlin, who also serves as the production’s dramaturge. (Editor’s Note: Bob literally wrote the book on Sondheim: Sondheim and the Reinvention of the American Musical from University of Mississippi Press.)
Embree and McLaughlin are joined by Chad Kirvan as the Baker, Nikki Aitken as the Baker’s Wife, Erin Box as Cinderella, Ali Lockenvitz as Little Red Ridinghood, Joel Shoemaker as Jack, and Missy Freese as Rapunzel. The two princes are played by Chris Stanford (Cinderella’s) and Danny Provis (Rapunzel’s). Emily Ohmart is Jack’s Mother, Shira Tamir is Cinderella’s Stepmother, Trisha Bagby and Bailey Asmar are Cinderalla’s stepsisters (Lucinda and Florinda, respectively) with Rachel Hall as the Steward, Natasha Warloe as Cinderella’s Mother/Giant/Granny, Kalen McGowan as Cinderella’s Father, and Dana Matuszyk as Milky White, the cow. Kelly Rosendahl is Sleeping Beauty and Tiffany Tackett is Snow White, but they also appear as magic peasants, moving sets and breathing life into the show’s resident flock of birds.
The set, designed by Nick Kilgore and built by Kilgore and Bruce Parrish, transports the audience “into the woods” with rolling platforms used to portray specific scenes such as the Baker’s house and Rapunzel’s tower. For the second time this season, our century old tree flats are featured. They were last used in the season’s opening production of All My Sons.
After several years hiatus for both, the chance of doing Sondheim has brought Sally Parry back to the director’s chair and Mike Wallace back with baton in hand as music director. After a few seasons using pre-recorded accompaniment for our musicals, Into the Woods will feature a live orchestra, placed strategically upstage center. The orchestra is mostly hidden, but you may see some of the musicians depending on where you sit.
Our staff is rounded out by a host of Players veterans: Sherise Kirvan is choreographer; Jim Kalmbach is assistant director; Darlene Lloyd and Ashleigh Rae-Lynn Feger are producers; Ellen Hagen is rehearsal accompanist (and is also playing keyboard for performances); Eli Mundy is designing and engineering sound; Dan Virtue is lighting designer; Opal Virtue is doing costume design; properties design is via the triumvirate of Carol Plotkin, Dorothy Mundy, and Jen Bethmann; Judy Stroh is stage manager; and Wendi Ayers is house manager.
Even standard fairy tales can be scary and disturbing for very young folks, and the second act of Into the Woods takes that up a notch. Although the language is fairly tame, some situations get pretty intense, so keep that in mind when deciding whether to bring the kiddies.
The pay-what-you-can Preview performance is Thursday, March 8, with regular performances March 9-11, 16-18, and 23-25. As usual, evening performances begin at 7:30 with Sunday matinees at 2:30. Apart from the Preview performance, there are no Thursday performances.
Photos by Jim Kalmbach, John Lieder, and Gary Ploese