LEHI — Walking into the humble black box venue with its thrust stage and distinctly community feel, I immediately started setting unconscious expectations on the quality of the upcoming production. How wrong I was! Lehi Art’s Into the Woods is an outstanding work of theater with more praiseworthy attributes than a review can contain.
I’ve never experienced singing in a community show like this one. Is it a Utah thing? A Utah County thing? Whatever it was, Lehi Arts was playing at a different level than other arts councils in the state.
Not only was the singing the best I’ve seen at this level of theater, the show (with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Lapine) was spearheaded by a spectacular performance by Emily Duncan as the Baker’s Wife. What a natural. Her line delivery and singing were superb. As a community actor, her expression and character were peerless. In song, “Maybe They’re Magic,” her natural performance brought to life a great line I never fully appreciated: “If the end is right / It justifies the beans!” And her final number, “Moments In the Woods,” left me spellbound.
This production is for both Into the Woods fans and newbies. For my part, I grew up watching the Broadway production on VHS and have every line memorized, and I had a dopey grin on my face the whole show. And my wife, who had never seen it, has been singing it ever since curtain call and is dying to go again.
Musically, the cast had a tall task as both the music and much spoken dialogue was performed to a taped soundtrack. There were a few slip ups, but on the whole, the actors (especially Duncan) did an admirable job.
To call out the phenomenal singing performances in this show is to basically run down the entire cast list. So here goes. Chloe Coleman showed off her killer pipes as Rapunzel and inhabited the not-so-bright maiden in the tower with great aplomb. Daniel Clegg as the Baker demonstrated what seemed like the most professionally trained voice. Jordon Millet metaphorically brought the house down with his solo number, “Giants in the Sky,” and earned some of the biggest applause of the night. Millet nailed the role of Jack, who, like Rapunzel, wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer.
I was shocked that Emme Casper who played Little Red Ridinghood is in 10th grade—she seemed every bit the actor as the rest of the cast, who seemed to be in their 20s and 30s (“Red can sing,” I wrote in my notes.) And Sydney Dameron was delightful performing the dream role of little girls everywhere, Cinderella. Her range between abused chambermaid and regal princess was impressive. As was her character work wanting to live in between those two worlds. River Robinson gave a meaty performance as The Witch, with a fantastic voice, acting chops, and the gravitas that the role demanded—although her pre-transformation performance did skew a little close to Bernadette Peters’ grandmother take on the character.
There were details galore to love. There was Madison Bowman as Stepmother moving a set piece in character. There was Rapunzel’s not-too-bright prince played by Luke Elison ad-libbing “Great show, everybody!” at the end of deceptively satisfying Act I in blissful ignorance of the heavier act to follow. These details are the sign of a theater company operating at a high level.
For all the great character moments and solos in this production, the large group numbers were possibly even better. Director and choreographer Cali Wilkes put together simple but effective choreography that let the actors stay in character and emote with the audience. I was surprised just how effective simply alternating the cast between standing and squatting was at providing new and exciting views of the characters.
I loved, loved, loved the Granny’s house scene. First, the way it was set up by Wilkes and scene designer Garrett Roblyer was so clever. They used forced perspective to make it appear that the Wolf was in bed sawing logs when in reality the actor was standing while the tech crew gently billowed a giant quilt in front of him. Red’s consumption and eventual expulsion was so seamless and satisfying that I can hardly imagine a more effective way of doing the scene. Bronson Dameron’s expressions as the hungry Wolf in Granny’s clothing were also unforgettable.
Another directorial win was the mirror symmetry of the actors in the number, “No One Is Alone,” positioned among the trees, which was lovely. One scene transition could use attention, however: when the Witch transforms and the Mysterious Man becomes the Narrator, it wasn’t clear what was happening to either or why.
The mics of Lehi Arts were impressive visually and audibly. They were demure enough to not draw attention to themselves despite the fact they were often taped on actors’ cheeks. The music volume did feel on the loud side, especially in the first act, although this loudness is likely due to the difficulty of the score and proximity of the cast to the audience—the design of the theater doesn’t lend itself to monitors.
Set design featured a deep love of paper mache, with several impressive full-sized trees. Milky White was also paper mache, although a bit less convincing than the trees. The placement of Rapunzel’s tower toward the back of the theater was a clever use of space.
I usually don’t mention casting for community shows because I have no idea what their talent pool is. But the rest of the cast was so killer that I do wonder if a more sympathetic Baker could have been cast; one with a more emotive performance and connection with other actors. Clegg’s performance often came off as detached and oddly cold with a formal, almost aristocratic matter of acting and speech that was not very baker-like. I didn’t believe it when his wife said he was changing, growing and “getting us through the woods.” And when his character arc climaxed in the devastatingly beautiful number, “No One Is Alone,” it unfortunately didn’t have the impact as the same moment in the 2014 film, for example, which never fails to leave me a puddle of tears. With the right Baker, this production could have moved from being an incredible show worthy of praise to something approaching community theater perfection worthy of shouting from the rooftops.
Costume design by Michaella Robertson was solid. The Witch’s mask was super cool. And while it’s a minor quibble, I did write this down twice in my notes: the Narrator’s vest, covered in quotes from the show and looked like it was purchased on Etsy, was distracting.
Lehi Arts’ Into the Woods is a spectacular show, with tremendous directing, performances, and crew. The singing in particular is impressive, and musical director Emily Hawkes deserves a heap of praise. The laughs are constant. The performances are delightful. This production is a noteworthy Into the Woods.
Full disclosure: Our President, Russell Warne, is the husband of Katie Warne, who plays Granny in this production of Into the Woods. To prevent a conflict of interest, Mr. Warne had no influence over the selection of reviewer or the content of the review, and he was not allowed to edit this review. Honest criticism in this review was encouraged.