LEHI —“Witches can be right. Giants can be good. You decide what’s right. You decide what’s good.”
Ah, Into the Woods. The brilliant, complex, twisted musical from composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and writer James Lapine has long been one of my absolute favorite pieces of theatre. New characters cross paths with familiar fairy-tale faces like Cinderella, Jack, Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood for a story unlike any childhood fairy tale. (Or perhaps this version brings these stories closer to their original, un-Disney-fied form?)
The play opens with the familiar “Once upon a time,” and the audience sees Cinderella wishing to attend the prince’s ball, Jack wishing for a better quality of life and milk from his cow, and a baker and his wife wishing they could have a baby. Enter a witch, a stepfamily, and Jack’s mother to further complicate situations. Soon, everyone decides or is compelled to go to the woods to find what they want. Stories mix and change as characters cross paths, and it’s soon obvious what a morality tale the whole evening can be.
Lehi High School Drama Alumni produced Sondheim’s well-known musical to raise money for the school’s current theatre program. Graduates from the past eight years returned to their alma mater stage for the cause, sacrificing time and energy to produce what turned out to be a memorable and solid production.
The set, designed by Max Durrant and Randy Blackburn, wowed me (with the exception of three larger-than-life books that inhabited the stage at the beginning of each act). Most of the set—including beautifully painted colossal trees filled the space and a tall tower—was exquisite and exuded the perfect amount of foreboding for the tale to come. But those books that held my attention when I first walked into the theatre looked as if they’d been hastily thrown together without much thought for unifying their design with the rest of the set. It wasn’t a great first impression.
Luckily, the show didn’t disappoint once those books disappeared (even before they disappeared, actually). I was wildly impressed with some of Lehi High’s alumni performances. Tim Rollins, though one of the youngest performers onstage, played a gloriously wise, energetic, and confident Narrator, who watched each scene and moved the story along wonderfully. Mckelle Shaw was perfect for Little Red Riding Hood, giving just enough sass combined with childhood hesitancy. Plus, Shaw truly made the part her own. Most productions I’ve seen attempt to recreate the inflections of the original Broadway cast’s Little Red, but Shaw found her own pace. That girl knew how to command audience attention, not to mention how to make me laugh. McKenzie Florence‘s voice was highly suited and impressive in the part of the Witch, a character who has to be believably feared by the entire cast. Florence irrefutably achieved that fear. And then there was Max Durrant, who brought to life the innocent, wide-eyed, good-intentioned Jack. He truly loved his cow (played wholeheartedly by Bryce Fueston) and “Giants in the Sky” was nothing short of adorable, if he’ll allow me to use that term. (After all, the audience is supposed to “awww” over Jack, right?)
Mason Holmstead played one of the most sincere and lovable Bakers I’ve seen. I especially loved his emotional “No More” and tender “It Takes Two,” but what struck me most was Holmstead’s ability to make every movement absolutely natural. Whether it was showing affection to his wife (played by Tamera Merkley) or giving fatherly comfort to Jack during “No One is Alone,” Holmstead had a firm grip on the Baker as a person and on how he should interact with his fellow characters. It’s interesting that in each production of Into the Woods I encounter, one character commands the most attention and ultimately seems to own the story. In Lehi’s production, the story was the Baker’s.
While most of the singing was stellar, there were a few flat notes here and there. The emotion was constant and genuine, though. The princes (Troy Sullenburger and Tanner Perelle as Cinderella’s and Rapunzel’s princes, respectively), for example, created such over-the-top, hilarious, fantastic characters that I didn’t mind the occasional flat note. The show’s technical effects were hit or miss; the technical staff could have used another week or two of polish. Here, and sprinkled throughout the production, were hints of a “high school theatre” vibe.
So much of Mindy Nelsen’s direction was fantastic. I loved her casting and her staging choices for group numbers like “Into the Woods,” “First Midnight,” “Your Fault” (the pictures!), and “Last Midnight,” but there were a few moments that left the story unclear or the scene jumbled. In the Act 1 finale, for example, the recently-blinded stepsisters roamed around the stage aimlessly (blindly) as the rest of the cast performed unified choreography, to the affect of a very chaotic picture. Likewise, (spoiler!) it was unclear exactly what was happening during the Baker’s Wife death in Act II, but upon further reflection that vagueness may have been intentional. Perhaps they chose to leave that moment vague until Jack and the Witch reveal it to the Baker in the next scene. (Way to make me think, Lehi.)
What struck me most about the production, though, and surely what will remain one of the most memorable nights of this run, was the actors’ reaction when the power went out during Act II. Yes. The theatre lost power during Act II of the Thursday performance. And not once, but TWICE. The power went out twice during Act II, both during extremely emotional moments and both when the Baker (Holmstead), Cinderella (Haley Florence), Jack (Durrant), and Little Red (Shaw) were the sole performers onstage. Even in a blackout, even without musical underscoring, even at the prospect that the power would not come back on, those actors kept going. I never saw a break in character. Rather, they let what must have been the terror of the situation inform their performances. That, combined with the rapt attention and anxiety I felt, heightened the action and made for some incredibly emotional moments. No one knew what was going to happen next—not the audience, not the actors, not the characters they were playing. I can only imagine what was going on backstage to get the power, lights, sound, everything turned back on. I was riveted and absolutely impressed with how the situation was handled. The show never stopped. The characters never disappeared. The show went on. Bravo, Lehi.
Unfortunately, this beautiful production closed August 24th, but keep a close watch on those Lehi graduates. There is some genuine talent coming from the halls of Lehi High School. Congratulations on a wonderful production, Lehi alumni, and thank you for a wonderful night at the theatre.