One of my biggest challenges when it comes to reviewing is there is always a chance that I will see the same show multiple times, both professional and non-professional productions. That means that I have to endeavor to remain objective and judge each production on its own merits, rather than compare one to another. In the case of “Into the Woods,” which is one of my favorite musicals, I have lost count of the number of versions I have seen of it. As it turns out, however, Summer Stock Stage’s production, which I saw Friday at Marian University Theatre, was one of the best. No surprise really, because almost every show I’ve seen by this group, which provides theatre experiences for teenagers in Central Indiana, is always top notch and this one was no exception.
The Tony Award-winning musical, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, premiered on Broadway in 1987. A Disney film directed by Rob Marshall with an all-star cast and based on the stage musical was released in 2014. “Into the Woods” intertwines the plots of several Brothers Grimm fairy tales and follows them further to explore the consequences of the characters’ dreams and desires. The main characters are taken from “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and “Rapunzel.” Their stories are woven into a more original one with sinister undertones, featuring a baker and his wife, who desperately wish for a child, but are thwarted by an evil witch who has cast a spell on them. Ultimately, all the characters’ stories reflect the challenges we all face, the difficulties we experience, and how our choices affect our journey through life.
Produced by Summer Stock Stage’s co-founder Emily Ristine Holloway, the SSS production was directed by Equity actor, Indiana Repertory Theatre regular and Lunt-Fontanne National Fellow Constance Macy. This was her first time directing a musical. Prior to this show, I had never seen anything Macy had directed, but it was clear from the quality of the acting and the production itself that Macy’s long experience, artistic judgment and expertise informed its professional quality. The acting in this show especially was some of the most accomplished I have seen from non-professional teenage actors.
All the leading and supporting roles in the show were very well cast, with not one weak link. Each member of the 24-member cast deserves plaudits and I am reluctant to single out any one individual, but at the same time, certain performances stood out and deserve special acknowledgment.
Julia Murphy turned in a bravura performance as the twisted witch cursed with ugliness who holds Rapunzel captive in a tower. Her solo of the climactic “Last Midnight” was stunning for the intensity of her electrifying vocal and dramatic performance. An SSS veteran of four seasons, Murphy has the goods to make it in the big time.
Michael Krauter charmed as the guileless Jack who is friendless and finds solace in his family’s cow. His renditions of “I Guess This Is Goodbye” and “Giant in the Sky” revealed a fine tenor voice and his overall performance demonstrated a natural ease on stage.
Amelia Wray, who is making her mark in the big leagues as a cast member of “Sydney to the Max” on the Disney Channel, showed why she is a rising star in her role as a spunky Little Red Riding Hood. Her duet of “Hello, Little Girl” with Jack Chase as the smarmy Wolf was a highlight of the show. I cannot wait to see how the career of this young phenom unfolds.
Equally appealing and both showing strong performances as Cinderella’s Prince and Rapunzel’s Prince respectively were Jacob Crow and Nate Schlabach, whose duet of “Agony” was a crowd pleaser.
Cora Lucas was ideally cast as the persecuted Cinderella, who remains hopeful despite the abuse she suffers at the hands of her wicked stepmother and stepsister, and shined in her solo “On the Steps of the Palace.”
A large part of SSS’s success is due in part to its outstanding creative teams that always add a professional polish to the its productions, not often seen on community theatre stages. This esteemed group of artists and craftsman included music director Jeanne Bowling, who led a proficient 10-piece orchestra, choreographer and Dance Kaleidoscope dancer Mariel Greenlee, costumer Jason Gill, lighting designer Quinten James, scenic designer Kyle Ragsdale, sound designer Zach Rosing, Prop master Rachelle Martin and Andrew Elliot who designed the wigs. Their creative production talents contributed to the show’s exemplary caliber.
As an “Into the Woods” devotee, I was most impressed with Macy’s unique interpretation of the musical, during which the show’s scenery is stripped away to reveal a skeleton of the set and the cast comes out in street clothes at its conclusion. With its beautiful music, compelling and sometimes dark, yet engaging story and feel-good ending, its myriad, serious messages are not your typical musical fare and stay with you long after you leave the theatre. In the end, I came away with a reminder that the show is not so much about fantasy as it is about reality.