A cautionary note before we get into the nuts and bolts of Into the Woods. It’s not a children’s show, despite the veneer of fairy tale fancy. The subject matter and Sondheim’s appealingly complex narrative through dissonant numbers isn’t something your seven year old is going to appreciate, so please secure a sitter instead of subjecting audiences to shuffling feet, constant questions, and plaintive wails to go home. Thank you in advance.
Now on to Sondheim and the Duluth Playhouse’s production of Into the Woods, directed by Priscilla McRoberts. It’s a difficult show to put on yet since it debuted in 1986, it has consistently been a much-loved and oft-performed production for community theatre groups. In this production, Sondheim’s lyrics are more complex and substantive than the surrounding scenery and story by James Lapine. But, that’s not to be unexpected.
Three overarching tales converge on stage. Jack (Kyle Geissler) is emotionally attached to his cow, Milky White, which he eventually sells for some magical beans. You know that story. Cinderella (Jana LaPine) is a beauty in rags waiting to be swept off her feet by the prince of the realm. And there’s a childless baker (William Lucas) and his wife (Amanda Weis) who are visited by a witch (Andrea Schmidt). The witch sets upon them your basic fairy tale quest: acquire a blood red cloak, a milky white cow, golden hair, and a slipper pure as gold. Ah, yes. This requires the entrance of more familiar fairy tale faces with Red Riding Hood (Kate Horvath), Rapunzel (Erin Blazevic), the Prince (Andrew Roemhildt) and Nate St. Germain playing Rapunzel’s prince. If the baker can deliver, he and his wife will receive the blessings of being parents.
Plug in Sondheim’s ambivalent lyrics and you’ve got something a cut above your run of the mill musical comedy. That is, if, as a performer, you have done enough vocal calisthenics and have a native talent for singing.
This company does well with ensemble singing and the opening number demonstrates they have that ability. It’s only when the set pieces lift and the characters are thrust into the woods that we see the varying levels of individual talent and ability, creating a mixed bag performance-wise. Kate Horvath as Little Red delivers a well-executed cheeky performance, especially in the first act’s early moments along with Roemhildt (playing double duty as the wolf) during “Hello Little Girl” leaving just a hint of the original production’s sexually suggestive interaction between the big bad wolf and little girl on the way to grandmother’s house. Horvath is energetic and consistent on stage, often delivering some of the show’s applause and laugh-inducing moments.
Kyle Geissler, as Jack, looks the part well-enough. Earnest, wide-eyed, and hopeful, Geissler approaches his role with enthusiasm and the right touch of fairy tale emotion. But, the vocal demands are just too much for him to meet with consistency and that’s the challenge of singing Sondheim, for amateurs. Often raspy and struggling with volume and pitch, Geissler, faces the additional hurdle of competing with musical accompaniment that is often too loud for most of the voices, especially in the first act when the actors are warming up to singing on stage. Geissler handles the ensemble numbers well, as do all the others, but especially during the challenging “Giants in the Sky” he just does not get there.
A viable alternative for the casting of Jack would have been Nate St. Germain–much stronger vocally, but just as delightful right where he is, being cast as Rapunzel’s prince. With great stage presence and confident delivery of lines and vocals, St. Germain alone and along with Roemhildt are the show’s scene stealers and come together to perform one of the enduringly cheeky and accomplished numbers of this production, “Agony” and its reprise in the second act. For his part, Roemhildt’s charming but not sincere prince strikes just the right comedic balance with the rest of the casting to be noticed without being imperious on stage.
The strongest vocal performers with the most amount of time on stage are William Lucas and Amanda Weis, paired together as husband and wife. Lucas can push past the live music effortlessly and is attuned to the highs and lows, and twists and turns of Sondheim’s repertoire. And he accomplishes this along with the duty of acting his role on stage with deliberation and depth whether he’s comedically sparring during “Maybe They’re Magic” or lamenting during “No More” and “No One is Alone.”
Weis, as the baker’s wife, is indignant, bossy, and hopeful as she attempts to help her husband find the items they need to satisfy the witch’s demands. She and LaPine are paired up nicely in their performance of “A Very Fine Prince” and Weis shines during the evocative “Moments in the Woods.” LaPine’s Cinderella is a little less fairy tale innocent in this production and a little more earthy. Her shining moment on stage is with Little Red during “No One is Alone.” During Friday’s performance, a technical glitch where one of LaPine’s slippers fell over the edge of the stage was skillfully remedied when she asked a “squirrel” in the front row to help her retrieve the slipper to applause and cheers for her quick thinking while remaining in character.
The perplexing character of the show is the witch, played by Andrea Schmidt. Her costuming by Jean Olson is well-done, but with so much latitude given to such a stage character, it’s confusing whether or not it was an actor’s choice or a director’s decision for Schmidt’s monotone style and muddy interpretation of Sondheim’s lyrics during performance. As such, Schmidt was the one character on stage that seemed to upset the performance balance, although she did turn in a respectable rendition of “Last Midnight” where she seemed to reach full volume in her final musical moments on stage.
Amber Goodspeed as Jack’s mother, with beautiful vocal abilities, never seemed to get enough time on stage and along with Nate St. Germain, could have been cast in other roles to make the show shine more consistently. And credit goes to Ashley Matheson, Dani Stock, and Beth Anderson, as Cinderella’s stepsisters and stepmother, respectively, for light touches of comedy that flesh out the action on stage, demonstrating that there are no small roles in any production.
The set design by Curtis Phillips seemed a bit on the duller side of what he’s capable of producing–at least some of it. It might have been a more visually effective set had the rising set pieces indicating the homes of Jack, the baker, and Cinderella been more colourful to contrast later with the forbidding darkness of the grays and browns of the woods the characters fear. Despite this minor observation, the lighting design by Jeff Brown was a technical success for creating mood. The live music, conducted by Blake Peterson, was flawless (despite volume for the actors) and, if you didn’t know it, might have been so well done as to be mistaken for a recording.
For a difficult production, the community theatre actors of the Duluth Playhouse’s production of Into the Woods entertained the audience and drew laughs and applause. Sondheim’s style and his repertoire can be challenging even for the more accomplished vocalists on stage, but the vocal performances (at least their consistency) is the drawback of the show. Allowances must be considered for nonprofessional performances, but for the publicity, ticket prices, and seasonal selections the Playhouse puts in front of audiences, lately, they have raised the bar themselves as far as expectations and criticisms of their performances. When the shows require a vigorous vocal commitment, we must be careful to choose shows where the talent base is confident and trained enough to give their best moments on stage, not only for audiences, but for themselves.
INTO THE WOODS. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by James Lapine. With Beth Anderson, Erin Blazevic, Lindsay Brown, Kyle Geissler, Amber Goodspeed, Kate Horvath, Emma Harvie, Jana LaPine, William Lucas, Dan Maki, Ashley Matheson, Kyle McMillan, Carrie Mohn, Andrew Roemhildt, Andrea Schmidt, Keith Shelbourn, Nate St. Germain, Dani Stock, and Amanda Weis. At the Duluth Playhouse, 506 W. Michigan Street, Duluth. Through July 31. Curtain time: 7:30 p.m. with matinee performances at 2 p.m. Sundays. www.duluthplayhouse.org. This review, by Dennis Kempton, was based on the Friday, July 15 performance.