Syracuse City Art Council’s “Into the Woods” shows great community spirit

I have been a huge Sondheim fan for many years and have been deeply moved and impacted by his great works.  I have seen productions of virtually all of his major musicals and Into the Woods is one of my favorite Sondheim musicals, alongside Sweeney Todd, Gypsy and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.  I have seen many productions of Into the Woods and will have seen three productions of this particular show this year alone by different Utah theatres.  It is a Utah favorite as it encompasses great music, a large ensemble cast, and a powerful message.  The original production as well as the Broadway revival received many Tony and Drama Desk awards and Into the Woods is among the most produced musicals in the US annually.  Additionally, Stephen Sondheim is generally considered the greatest musical theatre composer of all time.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Into the Woods takes many well known fairy tale characters including Little Red Riding Hood, Grandmother, the Wolf, Cinderella, Wicked Stepmother and Stepsisters, Rapunzel, Princes, Snow White, Sleepy Beauty, Jack and the Bean Stock, among others, and incorporates and entwines their various stories into a new version of “happily ever after…”

As the Director, Marinda Maxfield, accurately states in her director’s note, “…Into the Woods helps us to learn important, real life lessons…our characters each achieve happily ever after in the middle of the show, sure they get their wish and are happy now, but is their wish perfect or lasting?…Our characters soon learn that there are difficulties and struggles to come.  Fortunately, real learning and growth comes when we leave our comfort zone and go ‘Into the Woods’ to face these challenges.”

Into the Woods is an ambitious show for any community theatre to take on.  The music is challenging, the characters are complex and it features a large cast in many subplots that weave together to create the story, all while teaching valuable lessons to the audience through symbolism and metaphors.  In reviewing this particular production of Into the Woods, it was apparent that the majority of the actors were newcomers to the theatre and I applaud these actors’ efforts in tackling challenging material as their first or one of their first productions.  And understanding this, I give a lot of leeway to the production, but I want to accurately review the show to provide useful feedback to the theatre, actors and members of the community that will be coming to see the production, all in the spirit of wanting to help Syracuse City Arts Council to improve.

 

In order for Into the Woods to be a success, the following elements need to be achieved:  First, the music must be exact, with precise rhythms and good diction and each song must progress the storyline while taking us on a journey with the character. Second, each actor must tell their individual story and create a dimensional character, while keeping the stereotypical shape of the fairy tale character they are portraying. And third, there must be a real sense of relationship between the characters and each character must change from the beginning of the play to the end—the lesson that each character learns as part of their story must be clearly communicated to the audience through this change.  This is why I say that it is an ambitious undertaking for a community theatre.  I will discuss each of these three elements as the outline for this review.

First off, the music: Jason Steed (Music Director) and Aimee Geddes (Vocal coach) did an excellent job in handling Sondheim’s score and teaching the actors the notes, entrances and complex rhythms.  On the whole the actors performed the music well and blended nicely in the group numbers.  Shannon Elmer (Orchestra Director) did a great job with the pit orchestra.  This added a lot to the production and an orchestra sound effect or a violin, a drum or a trombone at certain spots accented many of the characters’ movement and acting moments.  Vocally, Jack (Aaron Naylor) stands out with an excellent handling of the music.  I understood his every word and his voice soared wonderfully, and filled the space.  He was particularly successful in “Giants in the Sky”.  Cinderella’s Prince (Ryan Snarr) and Rapunzel’s Prince (Dan Gardner) also had powerful voices and blended very well in their duet “Agony”.  The main disappointment vocally came from the Witch (Julie Pest Parsons).  She has some of the most moving and profound numbers in the show such as “Stay with Me” and “Last Midnight”.  Unfortunately, she had kind of a “pop sound” going on and she would slide through the notes rather than producing the powerful musical theatre sound needed to really belt those beautiful legato melodies.  This was most evident in her higher registers.  This left me disappointed and not as moved as I wanted to be, and this also made her less emotionally connected to the material.  Additionally her diction was muddied in a lot of her “patter songs” which lost some of the humor.  The Witch is a vocally demanding role and those familiar with Into the Woods have high vocal expectations for the Witch.

 

Little Red Riding Hood (Jennica Smith) was very cute and had a lot of spunk.  She performed “I Know Things Now” with lots of energy, however, that is about all we got from her number.  The subtext was completely lost and it wasn’t clear what she was singing about.  We needed discoveries and for her to better articulate the meaning of the song and really let us know just what “things she now knows.”  Cinderella’s (Jillian Tirando) “On the Steps of the Palace” didn’t work as well either as Ms. Tirando reverted to an unnatural pose over and over with her physicality and failed to take me on a journey with this number.  I wanted a much greater variety of tactics and discoveries in this number, along with a greater variety of physicality to accent these choices.  However, the quintet between the Baker, Jack, Little Red, Witch and Cinderella in Act Two, “Your Fault”, worked well.  I felt genuine communication from the actors in this number.  They were committed to the lines and approached them from a very natural place with a variety of tactics.  This progressed the storyline and the characters learned from this number in the moment.  Well done!  This is what a lot of the other numbers needed—real commitment and drive!

 

Next, Characterization and Depth: Each actor must tell their individual story and create a dimensional character, while keeping the stereotypical shape of the fairy tale character they are portraying.  I wanted to point out specific examples of characters and scenes where this worked and times where it didn’t.  Each character has a unique contribution to the storyline.  Because there are so many characters in the show, many of the actors only get a couple of scenes to fully tell their character’s story.  And that is how the actors in this show should view themselves: as storytellers.  Each character in a sentence or two should be able to answer these questions, “What is my character’s story and what moral am I teaching the audience through my character?” and “What does my character learn through the play and how does I change as a result of what I learn from beginning to end?”  Those actors that answered these questions clearly, created believable characters and were successful.  With so many quick scenes and so many characters, this storytelling begins with the physicality of the character.  Just as in the cartoon or the fairytale story, how does the character stand and move?  What mannerisms are unique to this character to create contrast to the other characters?  Cinderella’s Prince (Ryan Snarr), The Witch (Julie Best Parsons), Grandmother (Lorri Tirado) and Jack’s mother (JaNae Whitmer) were all very successful at creating this physicality uniquely to their character.  Ms. Parons as the Witch was especially successful in communicating physically her character’s emotions and thoughts.  She handled this excellently both as the old witch and the young witch.  We needed this from other characters.  I would have liked to see a greater variety of physicality in creating unique characterizations particularly from Little Red Riding Hood (Jennica Smith).

 

Though this physicality creates a shape for the character, this is only the starting point.  What Sondheim and Lapine do with each of these characters is provide depth so that they are not cartoons or one-dimensional characters, but rather real people that have a variety of emotions, needs and a driving objective through the piece.  Again Jack (Aaron Naylor) was the most successful at this and as a result the strongest actor in the play.  He was grounded as a character, and filled each beat with many choices.  The subtlety and discoveries he made throughout, made him engaging to watch in each scene.  I also found the Mysterious Man (Jared Jensen) to be successful in this respect.  He had a nice shape to his character and revealed a lot of layers and variety.  Cinderella’s Prince (Ryan Snarr) and Rapunzel’s Prince  (Dan Gardner), though excellent in their physicality of the characters, on the whole were very one-dimensional.  I wanted much more from them, especially as the show progressed.  They played “state of beings” rather than revealing what was under this outer shell and they needed to make real choices (they needed to think verbs rather than adjectives).  Particularly in the scene with Cinderella’s Prince and the Baker’s Wife (Becky Snarr) and the final scene between Cinderella and Cinderella’s Prince, I wanted to see Mr. Snarr as the Prince become a real person—with vulnerability, discoveries and real human emotions as opposed to the caricature that we got.  These were times that real communication and depth were needed.

Third, Relationships, Change and Discoveries: there must be a real sense of relationship between the characters and each character must change from the beginning of the play to the end—the lesson that each character learns, as part of their story must be clearly communicated to the audience. How does each character feel about the other characters that they are interacting with?  The Baker (Shaun Gardner) and the Baker’s Wife (Becky Snarr) left me wanting much more.  This is really their story that we are following and all the other characters are supporting characters in their story.  Their relationship was much too shallow.  I wanted to see this relationship develop as the show progressed and the full range of emotions between them.  Again, Lapine and Sondheim have set this up very nicely in the writing.  Particularly in the song “It Takes Two” was a perfect opportunity to explore their relationship and really make us fall in love with them.  But the chemistry just wasn’t there.  Also, upon the Baker’s discovery of his wife’s death, I wanted so much more at that moment to really punctuate the depth of his loss. By contrast, Jack (Aaron Naylor) and Jack’s mother (JaNae Whitmer) were very successful in creating a real relationship with depth.  I believed them and this relationship added much to their various scenes throughout the show with little nuances that sprung out of their relationship.  We needed greater depth from The Witch (Julie Best Parsons) and Rupunzel (Janay Hansen).  Rapunzel gave us only a surface level understanding of her character.  This would have helped “Stay With Me” have the power to really move if there was greater depth to their relationship.

Lastly, motivations are key in the delivery of the lines and storytelling.  I had a lot of trouble believing the Baker’s wife (Becky Snarr).  She is on stage the most and therefore she needed to explore much greater depth in her character and really internalize her choices.  She did a lot of “showing” and “mugging”, but had very few discoveries and I found her lack of choices to create confusion as to her motivations in many of the scenes.   Cinderella’s Stepmother (Deanna Gardner) and Stepsisters (Kali Williams and Heather Sachs) had the mannerisms down perfectly, though their story wasn’t told clearly enough.  How did they change and what lesson did they teach us? —I didn’t get it.  By contrast, in Cinderella’s final scene with the Prince, I really believed her.  I felt a genuine discovery and emotional connection to Ms. Tirando’s lines.  This was a highlight of the play.

 

The costumes were excellently done and added much to the production.  The set was also well done.  It was colorful and added a lot of dimension and levels to the production.  I do not feel that Ms. Maxfield (Director) utilized these levels and the stage area as effectively as she could have.  Far too much of the action took place on the same horizontal plane and much of the staging was done in straight lines.  This flattened the production.  I would have liked to see the stage better utilized and more of the action occurring on the diagonal planes rather than the horizontal planes to add more depth to the scenes.  Additionally, the technical elements could have helped frame the scenes better with cleaner and more precise lighting cues to isolate the various scenes.  A missed light cue, squealing microphone or offstage noise from microphones still on after the actors exited, were distracting and detracted from what was going on onstage.  Hopefully over the next couple of performances the technical elements will become crisper.  I did however really like the silhouette created during the Wolf/Little Red Riding Hood scene.  This was a clever choice that I have never seen done with this scene.

 

I would have liked to see Ms. Maxfield pay closer attention to the pictures that should be created in each scene.  Many of the group scenes ended in unfocused poses or straight lines that failed to create the pictures and variety I enjoy in large ensemble pieces.  Every scene, especially scenes with a lot of actors on stage should begin and end with a multi-dimensional picture (utilizing various planes and levels) that aids in the storytelling to the audience.  Many of the scenes didn’t have a clear beginning or end to them and this lead to some confusion to the audience in following the story.  Along these same lines, each scene needed an arch and a shape and often this was absent.  I’m sure she had her hands full helping all of the actors to learn their blocking, music, coordinating all the entrances and exits and choreography with the set, elaborate costumes and technical elements.  Though we needed more depth from the characters and the individual character’s stories to be punctuated more clearly in the storytelling through the directing.  She understood this from her director’s notes, but I do not feel that we got the full message or a true sense of ensemble to the piece.

On the whole Into the Woods is an enjoyable community theatre production.  It is very evident that a lot of time, energy and effort went into this and it truly encompasses the community spirit of theatre.  However, this was too challenging of material for the talent level of the actors and the audience didn’t get the full depth of story that Into the Woods is capable of telling.  A few more weeks of rehearsal would have helped these actors to deepen their characters, strengthen their relationships, and better articulate their individual stories.

 

Into the Woods plays through Monday, August 6 at 7:30 at Syracuse High School.  Tickets range from $6-$8 and may be purchased online at www.syracuseutaharts.org/into-the-woods or at the door.  Included with the ticket is also the pre-show at 7:00 put on by the Youth Theatre, entitled “Before Ever After” which is a Sondheim musical review featuring 30-40 youth actors performing numbers from some of Sondheim’s greatest shows.

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