(photo credit: Susie Sprinkle–Hudson)
Written by Patrick Chavis
A few years ago, if I had mentioned Into the Woods, I may have been lucky enough to run into a theatergoer who had heard of the musical. Now that Hollywood has adapted it into a film, the show is about as hidden for theatre folks as Comic-Con is for geeks. Everyone knows about it now, and that’s not changing anytime soon. As a consequence, this is a well-known show, and with that comes interesting challenges for the performers. How do we make this production ours? What is this show about, and how can we communicate it in the best way possible? Vanguard University took on the challenge of producing such an epic musical and, under the direction of Vanda Eggington, pulled off an entertaining night of theatre but also missed opportunities to capitalize on the show’s vital moments.
Into the Woods is a fairy tale about what happens to the fairytale characters after they receive their happily ever after. The play follows a Baker (Austin Nunn) and his wife (Kate Frampton), who is on a quest to gather special items for a witch (Alexandra Miller) to break a curse that is preventing them from having a baby. The quest leads to the Baker and his wife dealing with other characters such as Red Riding Hood (Megan Fox), who’s on the way to her grandmother’s house, Cinderella, and many other characters from children’s tales. There’s much more to the story, but if you’re one of the few people who haven’t seen this show yet, I don’t want to spoil it for you –let’s say this is not a show with a traditional fairytale ending.
This story is dark, with some rather gruesome scenes. Despite not leaving them out, this production is somewhat sanitized, so the blood and gore are minimal at best. Even though some of the visual darkness is slightly overlooked in this production, all the emotional themes and questions from the original story are used and performed well.
Into the Woods is led mainly by the performance of the two main characters, the Baker and the Baker’s wife, and in this instance, they happen to be two of the strongest actors on stage. Austin Nunn the Baker is now an Alumni of Vanguard University, and he returns to the Lyceum Stage for a good reason: to play a fantastic Baker. I’ve had the pleasure of watching Nunn in quite a few Vanguard plays now. I’ve known him to play characters more theatrically, but in this production, he was much more toned down and measured in his performance as the Baker. It’s great to see he has so many layers to his acting. Kate Frampton as the Baker’s Wife mirrored Nunn’s acting, but she also impressed me throughout the show with her consistency in each scene. Her voice was excellent, and one of my favorite songs of the night was “The Moments In The Woods,” a song I had previously underrated. Because of Frampton, I discovered that song is a treat, though it remains very sad.
Ethan Boyle plays the character of the steward, who is a minor and probably overlooked role in the grand scheme of things, but Boyle makes the character thoroughly enjoyable in this show. I can’t explain with words exactly what makes him funny. You will have to see it for yourself, including the faces Boyle makes, which are classic. Alexandria Miller plays the Witch –probably one of the most complex parts in the play. First, she probably has the most songs to sing during the show. Secondly, the character was originated by Bernadette Peters, so the part has a high hill to climb. Miller climbs that hill during that show and pulls off a solid performance.
Besides some minor singing issues with certain actors, the largest issue in this production is the failed opportunities during certain scenes. The actors seemed to play and sing certain pivotal scenes uncharacteristically safely –leaving space for improvement in the presentation of certain moments.
Performing any Sondheim musical is an undertaking, and Vanguard University treaded familiar material with a respectable rendition.