Hang on to your seats everyone! Bring your best belly laugh and strongest applause — you are in for a treat when the final musical presentation of Into the Woods takes center stage today at 4 PM at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts in Fairfax, Virginia. I was blown away by the stellar performances of a cast comprised of three freshmen, seven sophomores, four juniors, seven seniors, and one music education masters student.The countless hours of practice that went into their performances were clearly evident from the moment the curtain opened. I was in awe of the cast’s flawless memorization and execution of lines, stage presence, energetic dance-like movements, and electrifying vocal renditions. Their performances were what one would expect of more seasoned actors
With Tony Award-winning music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, who originally directed it on Broadway, the George Mason University production celebrated the 200th anniversary of the Grimm Fairy Tales, and is directed by Ken Elston, with Musical Direction by Dr. Dennis Layendecker.
Supported by a pit orchestra who brought their “A” game on Friday night, the audience showed immense appreciation for the sensual, deeply connected score, giving resounding applause for notable songs, “It Takes Two” (Kyle Imperatore (The Baker) and Cara Pellegrino (The Baker’s Wife); “Agony” (Matthew Lincoln-Bugg (Cinderella’s Prince) and Jacob Lash (Rapunzel’s Prince); and the touching “No One is Alone,” (Kyle Imperatore (The Baker), Alexandra Bunger-Pool (Little Red Riding Hood), Kate Merryman (Cinderella). The percussion section comprised of Patrick Horner, Brandon Austin, and Ben Mitchell drew enthusiastic responses from the audience as they perfectly delivered gonged, robust sounds complementing the fast-moving action when Matthew Lincoln-Bugg (Cinderella’s Prince) was pursuing Kate Merryman (Cinderella). The actors were never overpowered by the wonderful orchestra, which was superb from beginning to end.
Overall, the scenic design by Dana Maier was helpful to the success of the production in that it grounded the overlapping themes and events of four tales which constantly crisscrossed and collided as scenes rapidly unfolded. I would have liked Lighting (Liz Replogle) to more clearly emphasize the change in locations, e.g., when the scene centered on Kate Merryman (Cinderella) at home counting lentils or Cara Pellegrino (The Baker’s Wife) at home when the first cow escaped. Howard Vincent Kurtz’s costume designs were colorful, believable, and appropriate for the period and complemented the actors’ natural movements.
Unfortunately, during my performance, the sound suffered a few times due to actors’ static, crackling microphones. To their credit, these few missteps did not distract the actors from continuing to flawlessly deliver their lines and to enunciate perfectly Sondheim’s funny and tongue-twisting lyrics.
The four Grimm’s Fairy Tales underlying this contemporary musical (“Rapunzel,” “Little Red Ridinghood,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and “Cinderella”) present multiple complex characters whose paths cross in the woods where they explore individually and collectively what really happens after “happily ever after” ends. One may wonder how funny, Sunday school-like lessons of long-ago fairy tales can expound on such complex subjects as adultery, infertility, personal accountability, moral character, growing up, parents and children relationships and the unavoidable consequences of our behavior. Through the motifs of magic and transformation, Into the Woods’ poignant lessons provide meaning for these and other life struggles we all face, at one time of another. At the core of this musical is the issue of wish fulfillment and its inseparable consequences.
An original story of a baker, Kyle Imperatore (The Baker) and his wife, Cara Pellegrino (The Baker’s Wife) deliver fine performances. Their desperately wish to have a baby, functions to intertwine the themes of four fairy tales into one complex and challenging tale. I found the somewhat deceitful actions The Baker’s Wife to be self-centered in that she easily resorted to lying, arguing, and overarching deceit in order to gain the child that she desperately wanted. Singing telling words about trading magic beans to Jack, from “Maybe They Are Magic,” she sings:
“There are rights and wrongs
And in-betweens -
No one waits
When fortune intervenes.
Amd maybe they’re really magic,
With strong performances also from Jacob Lash (Rapunzel’s Prince) and Miranda Carver (Rapunzel) Act I has the familiar theme of ‘boy meets girl’ in spite of her mother’s attempt to dissuade them. Not yet willing or aware of the consequences of their actions, they are eventually reunited with Rapunzel’s family. By Act II we know there are consequence to pay, but I will leave that to you to discover.
Rafael Medina (Jack) possessing a rich, singing voice, symbolized someone who let greed define him. Three trips up the beanstalk to take what he wanted was just not cool.
Possessing empathy for all mothers – Christine Huff’s (Jack’s Mother) disastrous outcome made me sad because I am a mother myself. After all, as mothers we want to identify with love and nurturing (something Stephen Sondheim never received from his own mother).
Kate Merryman delivered a vocally astounding performance as Cinderella. Her vocals on “On the Steps of the Palace” were simply gorgeous.
Rob Swanson (The Wolf) possessed another fine voice, whether speaking his part or singing, while balancing humor against deeper themes. Displaying the whimsical trait of being unable to control his appetite for ‘strange fruit, sweet young girls and old grandmothers – he falls victim to being slain himself.
Of all the characters, my two favorites were Brittany Martz (The Witch) – for her vocal delivery and bewitching mannerisms – for her whimsical, flippant style in her delivery, and Matthew Lincoln-Bugg (Cinderella’s Prince) – for his clueless personae and assumption of privilege, be it gender, sex or class, and the richness of his beautiful voice.
Kudos to the entire Into the Woods cast and designers for this entertaining and moving journey.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission.
Into the Woods plays at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts today at 4 PM in The Center for the Arts – located on the Fairfax campus of George Mason University at the intersection of Braddock Road and Route 123, in Fairfax, VA. For tickets, purchase them online. Here are directions.
Interview with cast members Brittany Martz, Kate Merryman, Jacob Lash, and Miranda Carver.
Interview with cast members Alexandra Pool, Matt Succi, Matthew Lincoln-Bugg & Rafael Medina.
Interview with cast members Kyle Imperatore and Cara Pellegrino.
Interview with Musical Director Dr. Dennis M. Layendecker.
Interview with Director Ken Elston.