REVIEW: ‘Into the Woods’ Takes the Audience on a Magical Journey Filled with Laughter and Introspection

 

Before heading to the opening night production of Into the Woods presented by the Oakland University School of Music, Theatre and Dance, I learned the entire opening weekend is sold out. And I want to assure you, after the performance I saw, the hype is well justified.

Actually, this is not my first viewing of Into the Woods this year. Earlier in the spring another local college performed it on a massive stage with wonderful costumes and props. But in all honesty, I barely remember any specific details and had I been able to fast forward the action, I would have gladly done so. It was just OK. Whereas what I witnessed on Thursday night inside Varner Studio Theatre was extraordinary! The way the actors moved across the floor and up and down the stairs was like watching a well-choregraphed dance. And even though I’ve watched the film and play before, I found myself being drawn in with great anticipation of what was coming next. It’s like when you’re given a gift and you open the box to discover there’s more to unwrap.

From L – R: Mariah Colby as Cinderella, Emily Fishman as Little Red, and Jonathan Stecevic as Cinderella’s Prince.
Photo credit JLBoone Photography

I am constantly impressed with what OU is able to stage in such a small and intimate space. And this production is no different. The intimacy you experience being so close to the action is enthralling. And the mood is set from the moment you enter the space which is sparsely decorated with somber shades of black, gray, and white, two staircases, gnarled trees, and Rapunzel’s tower. The characters provide the color and vitality. Had the set been bogged down with ornate curtains, a myriad of props and such, it would have taken away from the performance. On the face of it, Into the Woods presents itself as a witty musical containing some of fairy tales most popular characters. But when you take a closer look, you realize, the story is about something much deeper: our expectations—or wishes if you will. Does obtaining what our heart desires truly make us happy? Back when the Brothers Grimm were writing their fairy tales, most scholars dismissed them as frivolous children stories. But the joke was on them because the stories were carefully crafted commentary about important social issues of the time. That’s how the Grimm’s were able to get around the censors. Stephen Sondheim cleverly uses the same approach with his music and lyrics to convey the lessons learned when your fairy tale ending turns out to be more of a nightmare. As with all fairy tales, three is the magic number, and as the first midnight gives way to the second and finally the last, each character is forced to adjust their expectations of what their future will look like.

Will it be ‘Happily Ever After’ for Cinderella (Mariah Colby) and Prince Charming (Jonathan Stecevic)?
Photo credit JLBoone Photography

And this cast has plenty of character! Each is wonderfully fitted for his or her role and it was nice to see a number of familiar faces, such as the always engaging Tony Sharpé who pulls double duty as the Narrator and Mysterious Man. Matthew Carlsen exudes wide-eyed innocence as Jack (of beanstalk fame) while his mom, played by Kelsi Fay is the embodiment of nearly every teen mom out there – frazzled, frustrated, and wondering how she could have birthed someone with such poor decision-making skills. Grace Rosen makes the most of her minor role as Lucinda one of Cinderella’s stepsisters as does Brandon Wright as Cinderella’s easily manipulated father. And you don’t want to miss Kristin Rebera’s turn as the Witch. It can’t be easy inhabiting this role when you know the likes of Bernadette Peters and Meryl Streep have set the bar so high. But Rebera makes the role hers with a commanding stage presence and well-timed quips. Sophomore Mariah Colby is enchanting as Cinderella and Jonathan Stecevic is marvelous to watch as her self-absorbed suitor Prince Charming. Stecevic was also very believable when he showed off his sinister side as the Big Bad Wolf; proving that sometimes danger comes in a very seductive package. One of my favorite roles is Little Red Riding Hood and Emily Fishman played her with adorable pluck, petulance, and comedic wit. Another favorite moment, or rather moments, occurred anytime Stecevic and William Dunn (Rapunzel’s Prince) took the stage to lament over who was more tortured in life and love. Their scenes are truly a hoot to watch. And you can’t have Into the Woods without the Baker and his Wife. Robert Smedman and Annika Andersson represent the plight of the everyman and woman just trying to get ahead.

Most would categorize Into the Woods as a dark comedy, but for those who know the right place to look, light can always be found. Because while it is tempting to forgo venturing ‘into the woods’ so we don’t have to face heartache and suffering, it is those valuable lessons we learn there that spurn us on to personal growth. From disaster and disappointment new hopes and new friends are found. Family isn’t always the one we’re born into. Perhaps Little Red Riding Hood said it best: “And I know things now many valuable things that I hadn’t known before.” Hopefully, as you watch this production you will feel the same.

The performance runs approximately two hours and 30 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.

Follow the path to the Varner Studio Theatre of one of these remaining performances:

  • Wednesday, Oct. 17 at 8 p.m.
  • Thursday, Oct. 18 at 8 p.m.
  • Friday, Oct. 19 at 8 p.m.
  • Saturday, Oct. 20 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.
  • Sunday, Oct. 21 at 2 p.m.

Tickets are $22 general admission or $12 for students and the 10 a.m. matinee. Tickets can be purchased in advance by calling Star Tickets at (800) 585-3737, online without a service fee at StarTickets.com, or in person at the Varner Hall box office.

Varner Recital Hall is located at 371 Varner Drive. Maps of the campus are available at Oakland.edu/map.

About Sarah Hovis

Word manipulator, arts appreciator, sports spectator, and world traveler, Sarah charts her own course as the owner of saliho creative. She uses her creative mind and engaging dialogue to fearlessly bring the written word to life in print and online… all while keeping a watchful eye out for the next literary adventure. You can reach her at sarah@rochestermedia.com.

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