Review: Natural Talent Productions’ Into the Woods

Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: James Lapine
Location: Natural Talent Productions
Director: Raegan Kotz
Music Director: Harrison Ashley

Straight from Music Theatre International:

An ambivalent Cinderella? A blood-thirsty Little Red Ridinghood? A Prince Charming with a roving eye? A Witch…who raps? They’re all among the cockeyed characters in James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s fractured fairy tale. When a Baker and his Wife learn they’ve been cursed with childlessness by the Witch next door, they embark on a quest for the special objects required to break the spell, swindling, lying to and stealing from Cinderella, Little Red, Rapunzel and Jack (the one who climbed the beanstalk). Everyone’s wish is granted at the end of Act One, but the consequences of their actions return to haunt them later, with disastrous results. What begins a lively irreverent fantasy in the style of The Princess Bride becomes a moving lesson about community responsibility and the stories we tell our children.

Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods was Natural Talent Productions third show at the Arcada Theatre (the first two being Little Shop of Horrors and Jesus Christ SuperStar). With the intent of having a Junior version of the show in the mornings and the original production on afternoons and evenings over the course of the weekends… a bit overkill in my opinion but I can understand the intent for the most part. Me and my friends that went with me all kind of agreed that a more effective way of using both the original production and the junior version would be to have the junior version be the matinee shows and the original production be the evening shows all over the course of the weekend. Would seem to make the most sense, but I digress.

Let’s start with the set, I was pleasantly surprised with what they decided to do for set pieces when introducing the characters… rather ingenious in a way. I really liked seeing the curtains open and you see three life-sized books there that actually open up to reveal the actors in their individual scenes, very well done. When the books closed and were moved off to the side I was a bit put off kilter when I saw the set for the actual “woods”. Though using a video backdrop of the woods was one thing, and it flowed well with the individual trees in the foreground… two massive trees on either side of the stage seemed rather out of place until you realize their primary uses. The tree on stage right was where Milky White the Cow was primarily placed against while the tree on stage left was used to cover up the tower that Rapunzel stayed and later Jack and the Baker would perch while waiting for the giant.

Again as much as I understand the why, the woods didn’t seem to be a singular unit for me, it didn’t seem to flow or connect to one another in any capacity and although individually they were all great and when you put into consideration the community theatre budget you can’t help but be in awe in what you can do for so little. Then again it took a moment for me to come to terms with the apparent disconnect of the various set pieces not only from one another but to the set as a whole.

Another thing that really caught my attention were the two crew members in charge of being in the two major “trees” on stage left and stage right, as a theatre goer I really do not want to see that there is a person sitting in the tree, and once in a while I would see a limb sticking out one way or a knee sticking out another way, it kind of ruined the magic for me. Then again this seemed to be an all encompassing theme throughout this particular production of Into the Woods.

The cast, individually, were very stellar. They all did their vocals and individual acting bits above and beyond what one would normally associate with community theatre. Cinderella as portrayed by Jessica Fanucchi was a highlight of the production. Sarah Conrad as the Baker’s Wife with her power vocals really gave a lot of energy and depth to her character. Nik Kmiecik as Jack (from the Beanstalk fame) really shined during his solo “Giants in the Sky”. The list goes on… individually the entire cast across the board did an exceptional job.

So one would believe that with a very talented cast it should have been a strong production… not necessarily. There didn’t seem to be any real connection amongst one another or with the audience. As thus despite all the talent I found myself getting bored at times and looking at my watch waiting to see if it was either intermission or time to go home.

Which is a shame, because I really loved Into the Woods ever since I got a chance to see the Original Broadway Cast perform it on PBS all those years ago. One of the major things about this particular musical is that because there are no major chorus numbers except in the finale of both acts, it is up to the actors to create a connection, a chemistry that would cause the audience to want invest in them, to want to care for the characters and see them through the end. Instead I felt that the majority (if not all) of the actors were “acting by numbers” if you will, or I suppose “acting through the motions”. It very much seemed like they were going, “oh I need to do this now” rather than letting it happen naturally. Because there wasn’t any real chemistry or connection between the actors, the audience senses that and as thus the production falls flat.

Another way of looking at how it felt from the audience point of view… imagine each cast member being in a massive bubble, a bubble that can come up close to one another, but they never combine and they never really interact even though it looks like they are. It felt a lot like they were just interacting because that was what they were told they should be doing or it was an afterthought as opposed to them feeling that is what they should be doing.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this felt like a concert, because during a concert series you still felt some sort of connection from the stage to the audience, but here there simply was none. After two rather stellar and strong productions from NTP, this felt very much like a step backwards to me. Then again, they are still a rather new and young group, as thus there is going to be a lot of growing pains and a lot of figuring out what needs to be done and how. Here is hoping that their next show would not only have the talent within the production, but also the chemistry and joy so that the audience could feel and sense just how much fun the show is suppose to be and would tell everyone they know that it is worth while.