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Review: ‘Into the Woods’ at Fredericktowne Players

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Into the Woods, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, is now playing at the JBK Theater at the Frederick Community College, presented by the Fredericktowne Players. Into the Woods received many accolades on its Broadway runs and, more recently, as a movie. This production is directed by Zachary Harris and produced by Matt Kopp.

If you have not seen either version, this is a series of fractured fairy tales. Several famous heroes and heroines from our favorite childhood stories merge together. Each character affects the storyline of the other characters. For instance, The Baker and His Wife (William Lewis and Lisa Shinn) and Jack (Cam Sammartano) from beanstalk fame interface and change the others’ lives. The woods are the backdrop for this tale.

William Lewis and Lisa Katie Ann Shinn as The Baker and His Wife. Photo courtesy of the Fredericktowne Players.

The musical is almost an operetta, in that much of the dialogue is sung, rather than a typical American musical where the songs really do not move the plot along. Sondheim is known for his quick patter lyrics and Into the Woods is probably one of the better examples of this. You have to pay attention to the lyrics to know what is happening a great deal of the time.

However, there is a Narrator (Bob Ashby) to take us through the dark maze of plots. The first act ends quite close to the original stories, but the second take a closer look at what the reality of these characters and the consequences of the actions are in the actual world.

If you have seen the movie and not the play, there are differences. Some of the songs were cut in the movie, and some of the storyline was changed to reflect the Disney ideal. So, you will still be in for some surprises. Into the Woods has some adult themes, but it is still kid-friendly. However, very young children might find it frightening, but no more than the actual fairy tales.

Jillian Alise Wiley, Clay Comer, William Lewis and Lisa Katie Ann Shinn. Photo courtesy of the Fredericktowne Players.

The cast is extremely talented. Lewis and Shinn have great chemistry as the Baker and His Wife. Their duet “It Takes Two” hit all the right chords. Shinn is also a standout with Cinderella’s Prince, charmingly portrayed by Clay Comer, in the number “Any Moment.” Comer, along with Steve Gondre-Lewis as Rapunzel’s Prince, are show stoppers in “Agony” and “Agony Reprise” in Acts I and II respectively.

Jillian Wiley as Cinderella has a beautiful voice and captures the essence of this very different characterization of the girl in the ashes. She gives her the right spunk we would expect from the maiden who survived a childhood of abandonment and cruelty to marry a prince. In “A Very Nice Prince,” she combines with Shinn to show us the other side of both these ladies’ personalities.

Sammartano also has developed the character of Jack to be quite believable as the simpleton who has a brave heart. His solos “I Guess This is Goodbye” and “Giants in the Sky” were beautifully sung. Angela Thompson is also a big plus to this cast as Jack’s Mother. She gives a fine performance whether she is nagging or protecting her son.

Abby Elizabeth and Lisa Katie Ann Shinn. Photo courtesy of the Fredericktowne Players.

Kaitlin McCallion is a standout as Little Red. “Hello, Little Girl,” her number with The Wolf, craftily played by Alex Prete – who also does a fine job as The Steward – is both humorous and scary.

Robin Samek plays Witch, who goes from an ugly crone to a sexy vamp. Samek makes the transition flawlessly, and both she and McCallion are some of the consistent comedy of the show. Whether she is doing a solo – “Witch’s Lament” – or her numbers with Rapunzel (Abby Haffey) – “Our Little World” and “Stay with Me” – she catches our attention and our emotions.

Haffey has a beautiful voice as she calls out from her tower or when she is singing. And as the distraught young mother in Act II, she genuinely seems frazzled.

The rest of the cast does a fine job and includes Amanda Berry as Cinderella’s Stepmother, while Sydney Austin and Sam Fox play the stepsisters, Lucinda and Florinda. Bob Ashby portrays The Narrator and The Mysterious Man; Britany Poindexter voices The Giant; Matt Kopp is Little Red’s Grandmother; Charlotte Cooper plays Snow White; and Natalie Mixon is Sleeping Beauty.

Robin Samek and Abby Elizabeth. Photo courtesy of the Fredericktowne Players.

The Orchestra is more than capably led by Arielle Bayer, and Jay McRoberts was the Orchestra Coordinator. The choreography by Kendall Sigman is inventive and visually interesting. The wonderful set was designed by Morgan Southwell and Steve Knapp. They help create most of the mood of the eerie woods of this musical. The costumes by Kirk Bowers were very imaginative and reflect the characters well. The lighting design by Steve Knapp also helped create the spooky part of the production. Erica LeBebvre designed the sound and that is a mighty chore with such a large cast. The only small flaw with the play is that the microphones on the actors seem to be set too low and some of the lyrics and dialogue are lost.

The biggest nod goes to Zach Harris; this is his debut as a director. He did a spectacular job moving all these actors around and helping them create very memorable characters. Many of the actors and designers are very young, some still in high school, but you would never know that from the finished production. It is of the caliber of musicals with more seasoned, and even professional, cast and crew.

Those who live in the Frederick area should definitely not miss this production of Into the Woods. If you live elsewhere, it is most certainly worth the drive, but don’t make a wrong turn. You don’t want to get lost in the woods!

Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, including an intermission.

Into the Woods plays through October 1, 2017, at the Jack B. Kussmaul Theater on the campus of Frederick Community College – 7932 Opossumtown Pike, in Frederick, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (240) 315-3855, buy them at the door, or purchase them online.

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