Each time I’ve seen Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, now playing at Montgomery College’s Summer Dinner Theatre through July 2nd, is the best time I’ve seen Into the Woods and this production, currently in the more than capable hands of Director Walter Ware III, was the best time this year.
For over three hours (at least for this production — but that may have been due to opening night kinks that’ll be worked out by the time you see it; and please make note: you should absolutely see it), the audience is presented moral quandaries by fairy tale characters, each at a moment of crisis, each needing to listen: to themselves, to a Witch, to what’s not being said, to what should be said. The night starts with “Once upon a time,” a cue that we’re about to be told a lie, but a useful one, the way fairy tales have always been useful in explaining the ways of the world we now find ourselves in. Once upon a time, a Baker and his Wife wanted a child. Once upon a time, a boy met a giant. Once upon a time, a woman was seduced by a garden.
There is so much to see immediately upon entering the theater in the gorgeous and clever set designed by Elizabeth McFadden and built by an extraordinary set of interns: moss covered books, hidden towers, haunted hazel trees — and, over it all, a giant clock because for all the witches and wolves, giants and curses, it’s ultimately time, isn’t it, that villains the most from us? Steadily and quietly, minute after minute, until we’re left with no more.
From the titular Wood, we watch the ripple caused by “Once upon a time” — a baker and his wife want a child; Cinderella wants a ball; a boy named Jack wants what boys named Jack have always wanted, autonomy coupled with companionship (even if it is a cow); Red Riding Hood just wants seconds; the Witch wants a daughter, and to be right, and a little more love — and then we watch its echo: Is the child enough? Was the ball worth it? (Is a ball ever worth it? Science says no.) When we outgrow those closest to us in our life, what else have we outgrown? What does being right get us, ultimately?
The first act lays out and seems to neatly tie up the varying plots, because “Once upon a time” is always balanced by “Happily ever after” — and this first act is beautifully lit by Lighting Designer Lynn Joslin. Nothing bad can happen to anyone in light so lovely; choices don’t have repercussions in air so gold. Then brilliantly, for act two, where consequences actually don’t resolve themselves just because someone is presently happy, the lighting scheme shifts, and our friends — because by this time the Baker (Noah Beye), his Wife (Anna Phillips-Brown), Little Red (Tobi Baisburd), Jack (Jordan Moral), Cinderella (Monica Albizo) and even, maybe, the Witch (Samantha Shoop), are as known to us as we think we are to our very own selves — stand stark under cold blue and white light, the better to see their circumstances; the better to see what happens after Happily Ever After.
The cast, on the whole, is a joy to listen to; all in fine voice, if a little poorly served by a sound system that cut in and out on the singers throughout the show (another opening night bug that just needs a quick-fix, I’m sure). Music Director Walter McCoy conducts a live orchestra and that, right there, is enough to set this production apart. Actual musicians creating theater with singers and actors is stage alchemy. The warm throb of strings, the staccato blast of brass, the comic syncopation of the reeds: this production would not have felt as honest and lived in without this orchestra.
The trick, often, with Sondheim is that actors who sing are better served than singers who act. He’s less interested in tone and pitch (cf Elaine Stritch’s delightful and alarming braying in Company; or Glynis Johns in A Little Night Music) and more interested in the lyrics: as an actor, he wants to make sure you understand what you’re saying so that you’re able to convey that understanding to the audience. It is clear these actors have spent time with the script not just for its gorgeous score — beautifully sung throughout by everyone, with some notable surprises — but for the intelligence behind the questions Sondheim is posing. To make it even more challenging, these are questions with no answers. In the words of the musical, there’s good, there’s bad, and there’s right, with no clear intersection.
As an audience member, I’m bringing my attention and my trust, and hoping to be rewarded. In this production, that attention and trust is repaid many times over. It would be wrong and misguided to dismiss this as a college’s production. These are professionals at the start of promising careers.
Phillips-Brown is an extraordinary standout in a solid company with few weak spots. Her voice is warm and wry, and her comedic timing impeccable, in both “Maybe They’re Magic” and “Moments in the Woods.” Beye is also a strong contender, though maybe too quiet for some of the second act. His duet with The Mysterious Man (Zachary Norris), “No More,” carries such emotional weight; it was often hard to hear. Baisburd’s Little Red saves every scene she’s in — especially her reactions during “Hello Little Girl,” which could use maybe 25 percent more lust to really sell it from the Wolf’s point of view. If Steven Bennet’s Wolf could be stronger, he more than makes up for that with his hysterical turn as Rapunzel’s Prince (both versions of the song “Agony,” from Act I and Act II, sung by Bennet and Jehan Silva as Cinderella’s Prince, are gifts to both the actors who get to sing it, and to the audience, because Bennet and Silva work so well together).
Moral’s Jack commands our attention with the complicated message of “Giants in the Sky,” and his Mother (Claire Gallagher) shines best in Act II. Shoop’s Witch broke my heart and also earned one of three gasps I couldn’t hold in, for a costume change that I can’t really tell you about for fear of spoiling the surprise. (The other two were both Cinderella-related, and we pretty much know her story already, and one is a ball-gown and one is a wedding dress and both were stunning and the product of Costume Designer Peter Zakutansky.)
The energy and cohesion of the first act lags for a bit in the second, which could very easily be a problem with the script itself. Where characters moved with purpose and direction in the first half, the second half found the actors at times unsure of where they should be on stage, and where they needed to be going. But a cast as intelligent as this one will quickly solve those isssues. I whole-heartedly recommend this production to veteran Sondheim fans and the uninitiated alike.
Running Time: Three hours and 15 minutes, including an intermission.
Into the Woods plays June 23 to 25, June 30, July 1 and 2, 2017, at Summer Dinner Theatre of Montgomery College in the Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center – 51 Mannakee Street, in Rockville, MD. Tickets are available at the door, or purchase them online.