Into the Woods, the popular musical with book by James Lapine and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, returns for a third time to the Circle Theatre stage. The first production was in 1992 and the second in 2002, the latter of which I saw back when Circle was still in the round at John Ball Park.
I remember the Circle 2002 version to be a little bit naughty, flirting with themes of love and lust and throwing in a few costume surprises along the way. A few years ago, I caught the big screen version of Into the Woods with Meryl Streep, and recognized in it the Freudian battle of the id, ego, and superego. That’s the interesting—and challenging—thing for each production of this well-known work; what it means to go “into the woods” is open for interpretation.
Director Todd Avery’s 2018 version at Circle Theatre looks at it through a modern lens, folding in the effects of social media obsession and reality TV mentality. Less psychoanalysis, more behaviorism, and a little lighter and more accessible to younger audience members.
The letter from the director in the playbill outlines an ambitious concept where he envisions each character to represent a condition of today’s society – overprotective parents, self-absorbed teens, general discontent; some of those ideas came through clearer than others during the course of the play.
Coming through very clearly was the vocal talent of the entire cast, not a weak link among them. Kelly Carey as the Witch absolutely mesmerized the audience with the song “Lament” as did the duet “No More” sung by the Baker (Matt Tepper) and Mysterious Man (Dave Duivan). Notable for its tight performance and intricate choreography (Jolene Frankey) is the song “Your Fault,” as the Baker, Jack (Benjamin Lowen), Little Red Ridinghood (Ashley Isenhoff), the Witch, and Cinderella (Kayleigh Kuklewski) deflect blame and turn on each other.
The pace was very quick as the story pushed into farce, which brought good laughs but at times didn’t quite find a way to transition back when more serious moments were explored. There is much scrambling around as each pursues their goals. I admit sometimes I lost track of the story in all the chaos but I think it might also be because I found myself having so much fun zoning in on one character for awhile and watching them play it out in their own little world.
Greg Rogers is a Narrator who finds clever ways to insert himself side, top, behind, and more into the story. The stepmother and stepsisters (Liz Brand, Sommer Cain, Jenna Pope) could have sync-stepped sideways across the stage a hundred more times and I would have laughed each time. Dave Duivan as the perpetually cocktailed father of Cinderella made me smile each time he meandered through the scene. I give Laura Bullen much credit, I think the cow Milky White was one of the most unexpected stars of the show – seriously!
There were great little moments from each actor on stage so it’s hard to include them all here, but one last individual mention must go to Molly Jones-Horton as the Baker’s Wife. Her comedic timing and facial expressions were spot on and very fun to watch.
Scenic designer Don Wilson created a versatile set that could at once represent the forest, castles, and a bakery while at the same time providing a nice space for eight musicians on stage. When a different location is briefly needed, added props (Michael Wilson) and costuming (Bill Dunckel, Val Fischer) give us a few fun minutes at Granny’s (Kelsey Sprague) house as we find out what becomes of the big bad wolf (Derek Call).
The musical itself has its dark turns as it pulls the rug out from under the “Happily Ever After” myth, but Avery’s version keeps the tone pretty light overall and ensures an evening of rollicking fun.
Into the Woods runs through May 19 at Community Circle Theatre at Aquinas College Performing Arts Center. Ticket information at Circle Theatre.
*Photos courtesy of Circle Theatre