Review: ‘Into the Woods’ at Catholic University’s Benjamin T. Rome School of Music

Decades before Angelina Jolie played Maleficent or Idina Menzel defied gravity in Wicked, lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim was fracturing a whole slew of fairy tales for his witty and Tony Award-winning musical Into the Woods, which opened at CUA’s Benjamin T. Rome School of Music this past weekend.

(The Witch) and (The Baker's Wife) and (The Baker. Photo by Dan Weaver.
Christie Graham (The Witch), Madeline Cuddihy (The Baker’s Wife) and Jonathan Miot (The Baker). Photo by Dan Weaver.

Often called “fairytales for grownups,” Into the Woods combines features from several beloved tales like Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Rapunzel. Director Jay D. Brock has chosen to really play up this classic story element with very theatrical staging. The actors, dressed in all white (a great choice by Costume Designer Jesse Shipley), grab their costumes from a trunk onstage, becoming their characters before our very eyes. Only the Narrator, played with aplomb by Micaela Mannix, is dressed in street clothes, and roams the audience inviting us to join in the complicated tale she weaves.

Throughout the story, the ensemble utilises storytelling devices such as shadow puppetry and pantomime to great effect. Seeing the shadows of Little Red (Hailey Ibberson) and her Grandmother (Meredith Eib) get swallowed by the Wolf (Drew Stairs) turned a difficult bit of staging into a delightful trick of theatre magic.

Little Red (Hailey Ibberson) and the Wolf (Drew Stairs). Photo by Dan Weaver.
Little Red (Hailey Ibberson) and the Wolf (Drew Stairs). Photo by Dan Weaver.

Complementing the storybook theme were Ian McClain’s incredibly entrancing animated projections which served as the background. Luckily, they were far from being distracting additions and succeeded in adding great, simple ambiance, allowing the small stage to be as flexible as the ensemble required. The lighting by Catherine Girardi and sound by John Regan fit seamlessly into the production design.

Led by Music Director John C. Henderson, the student actors showed good mastery of the complex score. Some of the acting, on the other hand, lacked tension and some comedic moments missed their  mark, but the ensemble had an overall energized performance.

Shiloh Orr (Jack) was excellent throughout, especially in his exuberant and nuanced performance of “Giants in the Sky.” Jonathan Miot and Madeline Cuddihy put in solid, entertaining performances as the Baker and Baker’s Wife, and sweet-voiced Simone Lewis was an ardent and compassionate Cinderella, and delivered a sterling “On the Steps of the Palace.”

Cast members of 'Into the Woods.' Photo by Dan Weaver.
Cast members of ‘Into the Woods.’ Photo by Dan Weaver.

The cast found their footing in the more tragic tone of the latter half. Christie Graham as the Witch had a powerful turn during “Last Midnight,” supported by a foreboding ensemble whose atmospheric movements heightened her desperation.

The whole show was peppered with good performances from all, including Drew Stairs and Bobby Cook Gallagher as the Princes and Emma Onasch as Rapunzel, adding up to a cast that is greater than the sum of its parts. Even Jackie Madejski as the tap dancing cow Milky White had a moment to shine. The story ended with a beautifully poignant closing of the storybook during ‘Children Will Listen.’

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.

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Into the Woods plays through February 28, 2016 at The Catholic University’s Benjamin T. Rome School of Music performing in Ward Recital Hall – 620 Michigan Avenue, NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them at the box office, or online.

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