By Patsy Isenberg
“Into the Woods” is an outstanding blend of talents that came together just right. The musical opened at Flint Repertory Theatre (The Rep) Friday, Dec. 6 to a sold out audience. Rumor had it the rest of that weekend’s performances were also sold out.
The blend of talents includes the direction of this Sondheim/Lapine collaboration by Michael Lluberes, The Rep’s producing artistic director, who does such a great job with every one of the shows he’s chosen to direct.
Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the music and lyrics, and James Lapine, who wrote the book, took several classic fairy tale characters and put them all together in a story that takes place near a woods, so common a setting in most fairy tales.
In the first act the stories unfold as we know them, but in this telling they meet up with each other and their stories intertwine. Sondheim and Lapine have said the story needed a couple of characters that the audience could relate to a little better so they added the Baker and his Wife.
Andrew Agress writes in an article for Writers Theatre that “The other fairy tale characters may have royal pains or magical mishaps, but the Baker and his Wife simply want to start a family.” The characters all set about trying to achieve their respective goals but chaos ensues. So in the second act “they all must work together to try to set things right.”
The lyrics to the songs and some dialogue tell the story.
But the talent doesn’t end there.
The 13-member cast is also amazing, several of them playing multiple roles. There are quite a few local actors in this production but also five who appear courtesy of Actors’ Equity Association and are from out of town. They each inhabit their characters believably, often with a lot of humor. But their voices ring through the small blackbox Elgood theatre as well. Every one of them sing in this production.
There were some standout performances. As for comic moments Amanda Kuo’s version of Little Red Riding Hood was unexpected, because she plays the girl as a bit of a rebel and a smartaleck. And her interaction with the Wolf allows Bill English to show some great physical comedy despite his chilling demeanor.
More physical comedy is in scenes with Cinderella’s sisters (Meredith Deighton and Maddie Ringvelski) when they walk around with blinds over their eyes tapping canes as they go. Their eyes had been pecked out by birds.
The Baker and his Wife (Jason Briggs and Victoria Huston-Elem) also touch some funny bones as they try to cope with the demands they put on each other. The Witch’s (Elizabeth Jaffe) transformation into a seductress is also funny.
Gage Webster’s athletic ability as Jack during his rope climbing is impressive (with help from aerial coach and stage manager Stephanie Buck) and the same can be said for The Mysterious Man’s (Rico Bruce Wade) energetic darting, crouching and waving of birds all over the stage while intermittently narrating the story and offering information to the other characters. And the final musical number, “Children Will Listen,” which is beautifully sung by the whole cast brought tears.
The music direction behind the scenes is from Casey Baker who also plays piano. String instruments are played by Rachel Ehrhart on cello and violinists Joseph Alcocer, Beth Halt, Andrew Hatfield, Mary Lewis, Cole Thomas, Fran Wakefield and Matheu Wong.
On entering the theatre, the set seemed sparse for a show with such a diverse cast of characters with fanciful stories. But scenic designer, Shane Cinal, did a brilliant job making that small stage work. On stage is an elaborately intersecting, multi-level collection of stairs and ladders all painted a dark gray color resembling dirt. Among the ladders and stairs are occasional platforms with spotlights on each where the characters interact and converse.
To add to the effect many different thicknesses of rope are invisibly hung from the ceiling which makes them seem to go toward the sky a great distance. But this all serves the purposes needed cleverly and without cluttering the stage. The characters travel over and down the stairs and ladders lending action to the play. The ropes are also used for multiple purposes. They are most often “in the woods” so the ropes remind one of trees while also serving, for example, as Rapunzel’s hair or Jack’s beanstalk.
The lighting was instrumental in making the sparse set work so well. Chelsie McPhilimy, the lighting designer based out of NYC, has worked on many of The Rep’s past productions. She was challenged with helping keep the focus on multiple stories and all of these characters moving so quickly from place to place on that small stage.
The continuous music, mooing of the cow, clucking of the hen, heavy footfalls of the giant and much more were provided by Sonja Marquis, sound designer, for her first time at The Rep. Marquis is also an actor, singer, director and theater arts instructor.
An extremely nice addition to this production are the costumes. Every character is dressed in layers, many decorated with intricate tiny rope designs which mirror the stage ropes. Cinderella and Rapunzel each wore ruffly dresses that shimmered, a nice contrast to the other characters’ matte garments.
Another good choice was to have all of the costumes in shades of white, except for Little Red Riding Hood’s cape, of course. Brandon R. McWilliams from Austin designed the costumes and he managed to pull off making them seem Old World while still chic and modern. A good idea too was the silent footwear the actors wore so that all the running, walking and climbing didn’t distract. McWilliams also did the costume design for “The Boatman” last season at The Rep.
Amanda Bates, props designer, added her touches to add to the artistic melange. The props are few and the actors sometimes mime their actions instead of holding the actual items. Her props, Jack’s cow and hen for example, are mostly in shades of a whiteish fabric like the costumes which stand out beautifully against the dark gray backgrounds. The same color was used on the fluttering birds and the three infants. Color is held to a minimum which makes some props stand out appropriately such as the hen that lays golden eggs. Another colorful prop appeared when turning over one of Cinderella’s slippers to reveal a bright red ribbon roll out from it, evidence that the Prince’s steward had cut a sister’s toes to fit her into the slipper causing it to bleed. Fairy tales originally had a dark side after all.
Jason Briggs plays the part of the Baker in The Rep’s production of “Into the Woods.” He said they only rehearsed for four weeks and on the stage for just a week and a half. That’s impressive in any case but in this musical there is a lot of action that occurs on the small complicated stage. At times the whole cast is on the stage simultaneously moving in different directions. Briggs said that director Lluberes gave them each a “path” to practice and memorize. And then he had them rehearse it repeatedly. No mishaps occurred. Briggs also works at The Rep as Audience Engagement and Development Officer and has been in several of The Rep’s previous productions. There are also other familiar faces in the cast.
In his director’s notes from the program, Lluberes writes that “Sondheim and Lapine’s shimmering musical masterpiece is full of dark humor, gorgeous music and complex insights into growing up and the relationship between parents and children. I couldn’t imagine a better show to share with audiences this holiday season.”
Four more performances are coming up Dec. 13, 14, and 15. Tickets for “Into the Woods” can be purchased for Fri. evening at 7 p.m., Sat. matinee at 2 p.m. and evening at 7 p.m., and for a Sun. matinee at 2 p.m. To purchase tickets or get more information visit flintrep.org or call 810-237-1530. Adult tickets are $20, teens and seniors are $18, and children (up to 12 years of age) are $16. College Student Rush admission is $10, one hour prior to a performance with valid college I.D. Genesee County residents receive a 30 percent discount.
“Into the Woods” is sponsored by Dr. and Mrs. Frederick Vanduyne; the 2019-2020 Flint Repertory Theatre Signature Series is sponsored by the Whiting Foundation.