In the world of musical theater today, there is no greater talent than that of composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim. His body of work is complex and impressive and his subjects range from murderous barbers to presidential assassins to fairy tale characters.
In 2010, his 80th birthday was the occasion for concert celebrations by theatrical superstars and, since then, a rash of productions by professional, regional and community theaters. Among these is South Bend Civic Theatre which opened its production of Sondheim’s award-winning fantasy “Into The Woods” Friday evening.
There is no doubt that producing a Sondheim show offers more than its share of challenges. His complex rhythms and sharply defined lyrics have delighted audiences for more than half a century. For the unwary, they also are filled with many musical and dramatic pitfalls as the journey progresses.
Directors Stephen and Stephanie Salisbury have shared the task of guiding an extremely talented cast along the paths in this Woods. Casting is, of course, the first hurdle in the race to a successful production. The right people in the right parts are a major part of a successful show. Happily, the Salisburys made all the right choices.
The leading characters have excellent voices and the dramatic ability to lend credence to their “make believe” characters. In primary roles are Kristen Riggs as Cinderella; Steven Russell as the Baker; Caitlin O’Brien as the Baker’s Wife; Sean Leyes as Jack; Natalie MacRae as Little Red Riding Hood; Jennifer Medich as the Witch; Amy Barker as Rapunzel; Justin Hissey as Rapunzel’s Prince; Jacob Medich as Cinderella’s Prince and The Wolf; and Thomas Eiser as the Mysterious Man/Narrator. Some have extensive theatrical resumes. Some are relative newcomers. All fit together very well as do the 10 other characters who complete the cast (with a special bovine bow to Kelly Loughlin for a mooo-ving Milky White).
Unlike previous SBCT musicals, the choice here was to go with “live” voices. It was the right choice. These voices are good enough and strong enough to be heard without the use of individual body mikes which too often are plagued with imbalance or loud feedback.
Also in a “first” for the theater, there is no “live” orchestra, only musical director Rebecca Wilson at the keyboard and Stephen Salisbury leading the Live Assist music program — and the live singers — from above the auditorium. The software program provides the rest of a full orchestra. There are times when the instrumentation tends to obscure the lyrics, but volume is a matter of adjustment and what a difference the orchestral accompaniment makes!
For those unfamiliar with the libretto, “Into the Woods” takes four stories from Grimm’s Fairy Tales — Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Jack and the Beanstalk — and entwines them with that of the Baker and his Wife, a couple cursed by the Witch next door to a childless life. To lift her spell, they are sent to find four items, after which she promises them a child. Naturally, they must go into the woods to find them and along the way all paths — and stories — cross and criss cross before the end of Act One!
Act Two takes place a year later and looks at what happens to “happily ever after.” Even though all have had their wishes come true, the results are not what they imagined. As they struggle to find their way through a darkening woods, coping with losses, fears and anger, a resolution is finally clear: “No one is alone.” The survivors face an uncertain future but are no longer afraid of what lies in the woods, having discovered “Everything you learn there will help when you return there.”
The only off note in this production is the failure to find a really workable stage setting. Acknowledging that many locales must be at least suggested, it is unfortunate that squeaky wheels, wavering suspended flats and unwieldy set pieces are the rule rather than the exception.
Do not, however, let that stop you from taking this journey. The music, the message and the outstanding cast make it well worth the trip.
“INTO THE WOODS” plays through Aug. 12 in the Wilson Mainstage Auditorium in the theater at 403 N. Main St., South Bend. For performance times and reservations, call (57) 234-1112 or visit www.sbct.org