MAGNA — From Broadway to Disney (and everything in between), Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim’s classic spin on fairy tales, takes root at the Empress Theatre in Magna. There is a special feeling at the Empress Theatre: a feeling of love, community, and support. It’s not a regional theater; it’s not a professional theater; it’s not a Hale theater, but community theatre. And there’s something to be said about that. In amateur theatre, there’s a certain thrill to the evening that’s almost tangible. Family members and community members gather together to see their friends put on a show that clearly has been a labor of love, warts and all. While there were certainly “wrong things, [and] right things” in this version of Into the Woods, the perennial lesson of Sondheim’s classic still flourished at the Empress Theatre.
Let’s face it: for amateur theatre, Sondheim is a daunting task, even more so when the cast is singing along with a minus track. Often during the performance, the cast would be a beat (or three) behind the track. Whether this was due to not enough rehearsal time or the lack of monitors near the actors, it was horribly distracting. At times I found myself trying to lead the cast through the subtle ineffective direction of my right hand. As the cast struggled to keep up, the microphones would pop, wheeze, and grumble as the stage manager and crew struggled to balance the sound between the track and 20+ voices.
Another pitfall of following along with a minus track is the inability to be flexible with timing and cadence. Although portrayed with a unique softness, The Witch (played by Diane Nebeker), made every effort to stay in sync with the music, which she accomplished. A sad result, however, was that at quicker times throughout the show the text became mumbled and jumbled to the point of no recognition.
Perhaps under the direction of Nancy Jensen, the cast focused so much on the music that James Lapine‘s dialogue and the performers’ character choices fell to the wayside. The performance I attended was the day after opening night. As such, there were too many instances to count where actors either missed a cue, forgot a line, or musically jumped measures ahead. In fact, there were a few moments where I caught a glimpse of the neatly pasted script in the hands of the Narrator, played by Nathan Unck. While Unck certainly looked the part of the narrator (sharp bow tie, khakis, sweater-vest), it appeared as if he lacked the energy and focus that the role demands.
Vocally, Valerie Parker (in the role of Cinderella) took control of the stage as her beautifully rich and rounded tones echoed throughout the Empress. Sarah Johnson (as the Baker’s Wife) had a similar smooth timbre that resonated bright colors around the audience. Brett Johnson’s (as the Baker) vocals sailed quite effortlessly through Sondheim’s tale, but lost his mooring as he portrayed the Baker without finesse; his character choices falling flat. Alexis Shaw (as Red Riding Hood) grasped the innocence, playfulness, and sassiness of the iconic role, but left something to yearn as she reached for the higher notes that sounded out of her natural range and vocal register. Rapunzel and Cinderella’s princes (respectively played by Geoffrey Gregory and Chris Kennedy), voraciously attacked their characters, songs, and moments in the wood. It was a pity that there were so many sound issues, as both men had excellent voices that were lost in the hubbub of the epic battle between the minus track and the sound system.
The shining star of the evening, however, was Chalese Craig who played Granny. Craig created a character that was specific and simple that it would be a theatrical sin to spoil it for anyone who decides to see this version of Into the Woods. I can only say that I have never laughed so abruptly in a theatre setting at such a straightforward acting choice—and a character with little stage time.
Whether a choice or by accident, it was difficult to see the actors. There were many pockets of dead light scattered throughout the stage. The set was simple enough, and actually clever as pieces folded back to reveal the woods and reversed their direction to reveal the homes of Jack, the Baker, and Cinderella. Blocking was a struggle, too. As I watched from the fifth row, I noticed blocking choices that were mainly composed of straight lines, leaving the eyes little to marvel at.
All this being said, there was an innocence and care that permeated from the stage. This was clearly not a professional show. However, seeing theatre created by actors and community members alike—who do theatre because they love it, and not for the fame—was refreshing. While not a must-see this winter season, Into the Woods did stay true to Sondheim’s classic and reminded me of the simple joy of coming together as a community to tell the beautiful story of wrong and right, light and dark, and learning from the choices we make.