OREM — Into the Woods is among the most popular musicals produced in Utah and for good reason. The familiar fairytale characters, the beautiful score by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine is packed full of life lessons and morals, making this Tony Award winning musical the perfect production for Hale Center Theater Orem. The popularity of the production was amplified by the recent movie adaptation and a new Broadway Revival. With such familiarity and so many successful productions, I was impressed by Director Chris Clark’s bold choice of having a small cast of actors play all the various roles giving a fresh take to this familiar musical. Such a choice was appropriate for the intimate venue and insured that the small stage never felt crowded.
The ingenuity of this choice was both its greatest strength and also its greatest weakness. The frantic nature of actors having to quickly switch costumes or jump back and forth between the characters they were playing (often in the same scene) at times weakened their abilities to create well-rounded and dimensional characters, and occasionally detracted from the storytelling, making the production come across too “tongue and cheek,” as one would expect in a “comedy improv” style show. This took away from some of the more serious messages and depth particularly in the second act when “happily ever after” seems to unravel and the fairytale characters are faced with real challenges, including death and infidelity. Though at the same time, this convention heightened the comedy in many scenes, especially scenes where the Princes played the Ugly Stepsisters.
The standouts of the evening were Zoe Wilde, who played Little Red Riding Hood/Rapunzel/Golden Harp. Her rendition of Little Red during the opening musical number “Into the Woods,” as she is stuffing her basket to go to Granny’s and trying to get her lines out amongst a mouth full of sweets was absolutely hilarious. Wilde has a talent for comedy and created very funny characters in each of her three roles. Alexander Woods, who played Rapunzel’s Prince/Milky White/Florinda was also delightful to watch on stage. I especially enjoyed the life he brought to Milky White, his facial expressions and interactions with Jack were very entertaining and very “cow like.” And finally Dallin Major as Jack/Steward brought a youthful energy to the role of Jack along with strong vocals that really soared in his solo “Giants in the Sky.”
Emily Dabczynski as the Witch was a vocal highlight of the show, though not as strong in her acting choices, particularly the physical transformation from the Old Witch to the Young Enchantress, yet she masterfully belted Sondheim’s challenging score with excellent diction and filled the theater in numbers such as “Last Midnight” and “Stay With Me.” I wanted more from Laurel Asay Lowe as the Baker’s Wife and Brett Merritt as the Baker. The storyline largely revolves around them and I never felt fully invested in their relationship with one another or saw the growth and development in their characters as the story progressed, though they each had beautiful voices and sang each of their numbers technically correct and blended well in their duets.
The technical elements of the production were exceptional. The costume design by MaryAnn Hill brought a wide arrange of colors, creating a fairytale land appropriate to the story, which helped to accentuate the various characters’ personalities. In the second act the costumes transformed into more muted and earthy tones as the characters became more real. This was especially impressive given the fact that the characters had to switch costumes so frequently. The scenic design by Bobby Swenson was innovative and creative for the space, allowing scenes to move quickly from one to another and enhancing the storytelling. The sound design by Cody Hale was also appropriate in balance between the singers and the tracks, though the tracks themselves were somewhat stifling, making it difficult for the actors to have as much artistic freedom, as they were constantly competing with the tracks and occasionally fell behind the tempo. With so many “patter songs” and shifting tempos, it would be a challenge for any cast to be completely in sync with the tracks, though the music director Rob Moffat masterfully helped each actor to learn the score with excellent diction and appropriate blending during the group numbers.
On the whole, Hale Center Theater Orem has created an innovative take on this well-known classic that is sure to please audiences familiar with the musical and newcomers alike.