I try, sometimes in vain, to approach every production I review with as much objectivity as possible. It’s not easy; I’m often reviewing a show I’ve seen many times before, that I’m intimately familiar with, or in the case of local productions, I may even know (or have performed with) one-or-two members of the cast. Still, I feel as though it’s my journalistic duty—to the extent that I can—to always enter the theatre with a clean slate, carrying as little baggage as possible. This burden of impartiality is especially heavy when reviewing a show like “Into the Woods” because a) it’s one that near-everyone has seen, as it’s a favorite among high school drama clubs and community theatre troupes everywhere, b) it’s written by Stephen Sondheim who, for my money, is the single greatest musical theatre composer and lyricist of all time, and c) it just so happens to be one of my favorite shows. Understandably I jumped at the opportunity to trek up to Lewiston to catch Theatre in the Mist’s production of this masterpiece, and boy was it worth the gas money. Their production was charming and truly unique, bursting with talent from cast members of all ages.
. . .charming and truly unique . . .
“Into the Woods”, the Sondheim classic with book by James Lapine, is an interwoven and somewhat revisionist retelling of the most well-known and iconic English/Perrault/Brothers Grimm fairy tales including “Little Red Riding Hood”, “Jack and the Beanstalk”, “Rapunzel”, and “Cinderella.” As the result of the curse of a once-beautiful witch (Sara Kovacsi), a baker (Corey Bieber) and his wife (Casey Moyer) are childless. Three days before the rise of a blue moon, they venture into the forest to find the ingredients that will reverse the spell and restore the witch’s beauty: a milk-white cow, hair as yellow as corn, a blood-red cape, and a slipper of gold. During their journey they meet Cinderella (Erin Coyle), Little Red Riding Hood (McKenzie Gilmore), Rapunzel (Julie Pitarresi) and Jack (Anthony Chavers), each one on their own quest to fulfill a wish. The story—equal parts whimsical, adventurous, and tragic—rests heavily on themes of love, loss, parenting, and the consequences of one’s actions.
One of the most impressive components of TITM’s production is the broad and eclectic cohort of actors that director Tim Stuff assembled. In the truest embodiment of “community theatre”, TITM’s “Into the Woods” features actors in high school, in their 50’s-60’s, and everything in between, all of whom bring immense talent and magnetism to the stage. What’s more wild is that the younger actors, the high school juniors and seniors who weren’t even born yet when I was performing in my 10th grade production of “Into the Woods”, absolutely steal the show!
Anthony Chavers (17 years old)’ “Giants in the Sky” is heartfelt and innocent, demonstrating an enormous vocal range and tender acting sensibility. McKenzie Gilmore (a senior at Niagara Falls High School) has an equally impressive singing voice, with sass to boot. Julia Pitarresi (15 years old) embodies the often-overlooked role of Rapunzel with a beautiful operatic soprano voice, particularly on the refrain that reappears throughout the show.
At the center of the story are the baker and his wife, brought to life through charismatic performances by Bieber and Moyer. Local productions featuring onstage marriages too-often feature forced, chemistry-less performances, but that isn’t the case with these actors, who bring tenderness and believability to their onstage relationship. Casey Moyer in particular shines as the Baker’s Wife (a title I loathe; why can’t she have her own name?!), delivering beautiful renditions of “Moments in the Woods” and others.
“Into the Woods” features some of the best large ensemble numbers of any modern musical, and in true Sondheim fashion, they’re immensely difficult. The TITM cast was up to the task, delivering crisp and articulate renditions of “Your Fault”, “No One is Alone”, and “Children Will Listen.”
Like most productions, TITM’s “Into the Woods” isn’t without its minor blemishes. There were fairly consistent mic issues on opening night (an easy thing to address before next weekend’s performances), and stretches of Act II drag a bit, a fault that’s more attributable to playwright James Lapine’s lopsided writing than to this particular production; it’s not a hot take to suggest that Act I of “Into the Woods” is much better than Act II, so much so that high schools and theatre companies often opt to only perform the first act and nix the second entirely.
At the risk of gushing over TITM’s “Into the Woods” ad-nauseum, productions like this are genuinely why I love covering local theatre. After sitting through countless stuffy, self-important productions of lifeless plays featuring actors taking themselves way too seriously, it’s such a breath of fresh air to come to the theatre and see seriously talented performers of all ages—not professionals, but folks who are likely your co-workers, classmates, neighbors and friends—come together to put on a earnest and entertaining show, one that’s simple and unassuming but also exciting and emotional and tremendously fun.
TITM’s production of “Into the Woods” is playing at Lewiston’s Stella Niagara Education Park on October 4th, 5th and 6th. For tickets and more information, click here.