Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods is not for the faint of heart.... in the audience or in the performance company. Clearly in excellent cardio-health, Grand Canyon University's (GCU) Theatre Department has staged a breathtaking production of Sondheim's 5-time gold medal Tony Award* winner. Immediately following yesterday's matinee, the director and cast sat eagerly on the lip of Ethington Theatre's stage, beaming and un-winded, to visit with Examiner.
This musical is a genuine tour de force, and it takes Herculean effort to master it. The Cliffs Notes probably read that Into the Woods weaves together brilliantly the fairytales of Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack in the Beanstalk, and a Baker nursery rhyme to explore the aftermath of 'happily ever after.' Along the way lyrics fly. Plots twist. Humor intercedes. Music juxtaposes. Irony zings. Themes intertwine. And the list goes on.
Director Claude Pensis, with assistance from Musical Director Mark Fearey, has trained intensely the musicians, pit and cast alike. Throughout the matinee, they leaned into the unexpected notes and unusual phrases like pros. Sondheim's early career was frequently mired by claims his music was "un-hummable," though present-day aficionados hold that the melodic and harmonic gymnastics he writes fit perfectly the character and message of every song.
And these college performers didn't miss a note or complex chord. It's a lot of notes. The entire book is sung, never spoken (think Les Miserable). The badge should be worn with pride because so many productions tire of trying, while others nail pitches at the expense of emotion or fluidity.
"Performance standards are performance standards," said Pensis, referring to the scant difference between academic and professional preparation of a show. "Our job in this setting is to train the student actors for the professional world."
It may be worth interjecting that Sondheim plays heavily in this show to the near-homonym of 'world' and 'wood,' so that when the chorus or witch sang, "Now you know what's out there in the wood," it's safe to bet at least a portion of the audience registered it as 'world' or immediately connected the two as metaphor. Sondheim has as much fun volleying lyrics as he does melodies in this musical that Pensis dubbed a "modern morality play."
While the ensemble sound was superbly rich and crystalline throughout the show, the individual performers were, in this case, at least equal to if not greater than the whole. Yes, the musicianship of each was excellent. But they had thought so deeply and practiced so wholeheartedly their characters, that a melding above and beyond the 'standard' often shone through.
Gavin Ely as the Baker never let the challenges that stumped or frightened him get in the way of his underlying certainty that good would prevail. "He's a normal person that just expects life to work out," Ely said. "When I [Baker] realize that I kind of need to go out and actually get what I want, I finally figure out that how you live life when it's hard is the true reflection of who you are."
Joshua Vanderpoel's first few scenes as Mysterious Man suggested he was an eccentric old homeless guy that rattles off gibberish for comic relief. In the second act, however, both his identity and his role became critical to the plot's resolution. Vanderpoehl offered, "It's fun to explore that there's been so much more on his mind than nonsense and riddles. We find out that he's [SPOILER ALERT] been trying all along to right the wrongs of his past....and he can only do it by being a father to his son, something that he never was."
Joy Flatz, perhaps more than any other character, openly wrestled relationship woes that felt relevant and timely in both acts as the Baker's Wife. Her deftly authentic pursuit of both her own identity and her support of people she loves made her feel like the show's emotional through-line. Her primary challenge, she noted, was "to pair the understanding that my character lives in a fairytale, but later also in the real world. All of it needs to seem normal. The fairytale, to them, isn't cheesy or fake. Both worlds are part of her [Baker's Wife] real life."
Jack, played by Adam Benavides, was a convincing simpleton whose best friend was a cow. But of course, eventually, he was going to need to learn how to think on his feet, because he'd likely be climbing a beanstalk. "It's a grow-up story for Jack," he confirmed, relaying how he observed closely his 10-year-old sister to help understand the kind of perspective that's so innocent and immediate, a perspective he wanted to cultivate in Jack. Benavides added, "We're doing Sondheim; he's a whole different world.... The standard to reach is higher."
Into the Woods isn't a traditional coming-of-age tale where the supporting roles help a central actor develop or learn his lesson. In this lightning marathon, every fairytale character experiences an important initiation. So listen closely. Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, the Witch, both Princes and others all progressed artfully from make-believe worlds into a 21st century existence. Each one told an achingly honest tale with technical musicianship so polished that the beautiful music fused to the story rather than standing out for its own sake.
The individuals were each scarred or flawed and a little less blissful at the end, but the beauty was they'd shepherded each other. Sadly but safely, they traversed from perfect fantasy through dark thickets to an adventuresome, loving reality.
Set your goal high. If you have the energy to invest in only one show next weekend, warm-up on a jaunt over to Grand Canyon University in preparation for your daring excursion, Into the Woods.
*1988 Tony Awards for Best Score, Best Book and Best Actress
2002 Tony Awards for Best Musical (Revival) and Best Lighting Design