Once Upon a time, in the city of Manassas, there was a theatre group that was in their 15th year of producing Broadway quality musicals. Every summer a group of talented performers gather to rehearse a visually stunning and musically wonderful show. And this year was no exception. Fresh off their hit from last year’s performance of Peter Pan, Upper Room Theatre Ministry has stepped Into The Woods and brought out a new side of Stephen Sondheim’s hit musical.
Into The Woods follows the story of a childless Baker (Sean Bartnick) and his wife (Clare Galvin) on their journey through the woods to undo a curse set upon them by a Witch (Elizabeth Gillespie). Along the way they run into classic Brothers Grimm fairy tales such as Little Red Riding Hood (Elise Walsh) and Jack and the Beanstalk (Brendan Clark). Things start to take a turn for the worst when the objects necessary for the curse’s undoing are harder to get than they’d wished for. With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Lapine, Into The Woods in an extremely difficult musical to tackle. Upper Room Theatre Ministry not only tackles this giant, they add a whole new set of magical surprises.
The first magical part about this production is the set. Designed by Pat Haggerty, the set is a mixture of ramps leading to different platforms around the stage. There are numerous tree flats that stretch out of sight, along with a stone bridge that connects the main stage with a platform located in the audience. Built into the set are a multitude of hiding spots and hidden escapes.
The actors do a remarkable job of utilizing each and every inch of the small stage to tell the story. A beautiful painting job by Kat Turner, lights by Dan Martin and sound by Dale Walsh help turn the set into a lush green forest complete with birds chirping and sunlight peeking through the branches of the trees. A part of the set I found particularly remarkable was Rapunzel’s tower, which was a large brick tower that rolled on and offstage almost by magic.
And speaking of magic, you’d be hard-pressed to find a cast that can sing Sondheim music while also making sure that every word is understood. With all wordy Sondheim shows, it is easy to get lost in the music and complex melodies and loose energy in the words, making them hard to make out. But the Upper Room Theatre Ministry cast, under the direction of Rob Tessier and musical direction by Chris Zavadowski, were crystal clear on their words. I could easily tell that a lot of emphasis had been put on diction of words. There was not a single moment in the show that I questioned a word or song. Not an easy task, especially within a group of people. In fact, it was in the larger group numbers that all the diction and enunciating work shown through the best.
One of the highlights of the show came in the second act with the Baker’s Wife (played by Clare Galvin) singing “Moment in The Woods.” Over the course of the show Galvin’s voice could be heard singing short phrases and lines, so when she finally got to her standalone song, she was ready to show us what she could do. Which included a song full of emotion and great acting while torn between loving a Prince or a Baker. Whenever Galvin was onstage she was an acting force to be reckoned with, showing off her bold facial and body expressions, as well as her gorgeous voice.
Mixed with the Baker (Sean Bartnick), the two had an undeniable and magical chemistry on stage. It was very evident that they were sure of what they were fighting for and trying to accomplish during the performance. Bartnick pulled out all the stops with his portrayal of the Baker. His shining performance was in the song “No More,” where Bartnick tugs on the heartstrings of the audience in an emotional duet with the Mysterious Man (Anthony Smitha). Along the journey of the Baker and his wife, they were instructed by the Witch to find: the cow as white as milk, the Cape as red as blood, and the slipper as pure as gold. All of these items of course coming from different characters in the show.
Cinderella (Carolyn Karcher), a very strong and beautiful supporting actress, had a voice that would make even the fairest in the land jealous. Her acting was just as well rehearsed, especially as the show progressed she grew stronger as a character, which worked well with her place in the story. Jack (Brendan Clark), a witless boy who lives with his mother (Leslie Zapiain) and cow are the characters that set up the overall conflict of the story, giants in the sky. Clark was very sharp with his actions in playing the role of Jack. With a sweet and innocent voice Clark introduced us to the “Giants In The Sky. “The song utilized the entire stage and gave Clark different places to run and show off his voice during his heartwarming number. Zapiain also had great acting skills and a voice just as sweet. I really believed that the two were related because of their strong onstage connection.
One of the best supporting characters of the night came from Marie Tessier, who portrayed the role of Jack’s trusty cow Milky White. Even though Milky White has no lines short of an occasional “moo,”Tessier was able to add a huge dollop of life into this otherwise small character. I caught her simply dancing to the choreography and even giving hilarious facial expressions from behind her cow nose.
Other notable standouts include Cinderella’s two step sisters, Florinda (Ashely Nguyen) and Lucinda (Caroline Parker). The two of them worked beautifully off each other creating hilariously evil sisters that stumbled across the stage and drew attention every time they were onstage. Jeanne Myers playing the role of Rapunzel also delivered an outstanding performance, drawing real emotion during her darker scenes with the Witch (Elizabeth Gillespie).
During the first act Gillespie plays an ugly version the Witch, her costume and makeup helped portray this character exceptionally well; however, I wish that she had put a little more time in creating an older woman with her body and voice. It sounded like she was a younger voice trapped inside an older woman. This would’ve also made her transition into the beautiful Witch more impressive because once she transformed the only thing that changed was her costume. Gillespie did offer a heartbreaking rendition of “Stay With Me” while with Rapunzel. Her voice was soft and quiet and gave the song the gentle touch it needed. Same goes to Elise Welsh playing the role of Little Red. Her commitment to her young character was evident as she skipped her way through the woods.
Finally, it wouldn’t be a complete Into The Woods without the handsome Princes. These two men did not disappoint as they danced and pranced across the stage, drawing tons of laughs. Cinderella’s Prince, played by Joshua Ewalt, was a heartless romantic. Trying desperately to find the maiden at the ball but coming up short every time.
Rapunzel’s Prince, played by Josh Carias, is equally as desperate to get the maiden in the tower to notice him. Although it is not hard at all for the audience to notice these Princes while onstage. They work so well together and even look very similar. Their showstopping number Agony brought an energy to the show that was well needed.
Technically speaking this show was brilliant! The lighting was very intricate and timed well to sound cues and lines. For instance, every time the Giant talked the lights would shake as if the trees were swaying and blocking the sunlight in different spots. I did feel at times it was a little dark onstage and hard to see some of the actors. Especially when the narrator was speaking, there were times when he wasn’t even illuminated. Other than short points of darkness, the lights were dazzling and helped propel the show through numerous transitions and technical lighting effects.
There were microphone problems at my performance. There is no doubt in my mind that these problems have been fixed. The orchestra, led by Cathy Drummond, even did a fabulous job of continuing their bold and haunting sound amidst the mic problems and were able to follow the actors and stay on beat.
The costumes, designed by Kyna Chilcot and Kelsey Heller, reflected everything from a poor town to the royal nobility. The costumes fit into their surroundings very well and seemed homemade and stitched together, but in a good way! I was very impressed by the amount of costumes in the show and how each actor used their costume to help portray their character. I am also a big fan of the tree dancer costumes. In order to achieve good transitions, Director Rob Tessier had several dancers dressed in leaves and sticks move very fluidly onstage. They were used to hide actors for surprise reveals and to aid in transitions from scenes.
Overall, the ensemble of the show was just as strong as the leads. Everyone had a defined character and was always doing something while onstage. The simplistic yet powerful choreography by Maria David was executed very precisely by all onstage, giving each dance a very clean and synchronized feel. Vocally, the entire cast together had a great sound. Along with the fabulous diction that the cast had worked to create, they sounded like an actual Broadway chorus.
Into The Woods at Upper Room Theatre Ministry defiantly lived up to all the hype and expectation set for it. Upper Room offers a few changes to the show that were pleasantly unexpected, one of which was a change at the end of the show that I thought truly connected the whole story together and added another layer that I hadn’t seen before.
The magic of the woods is truly alive in Upper Room Theatre Ministry’s Into the Woods! With surprises around every corner this truly is a magical production fit for any Prince or Giant.
Into The Woods by the Upper Room Theatre Ministry plays through July 24, 2016, performing at All Saints Catholic Church – 9300 Stonewall Road, in Manassas, VA. Tickets are available at the door or online.