Into the Woods

Courtesy of Paul Kennedy

Take a few of the most well-known fairytales from your childhood, add a dash of Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” make it a musical and you have this year’s first main-stage musical from the UCI Drama Department.

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Into the Woods,” directed by Eli Simon, opened Friday, Nov. 12 in the Claire Trevor Theater, with the collaborative effort of both the undergraduate and graduate drama divisions.

The first act of “Into the Woods” brings familiar childhood fairytales like Little Red Riding Hood (Sophie Oda), Cinderella (Ashley Norland), Jack and the Beanstalk (Jacob Haren) and Rapunzel (Yael Wartens) together in one world. Their stories overlap and comingle with that of a baker and his wife as they work to gather ingredients for the wicked witch who will grant them the ability to have children if they do as she asks.

The second act functions as a sequel, showing us how the fulfilled wishes of the characters panned out while they deal with a scorned giant on the loose.

UCI’s production of “Into the Woods” excels in its striving for consistency. The storybook aesthetics permeate the set, costumes and acting. Realism is abandoned in lieu of fantasy.

The opening set consists of a wall painted to look like a page from a lift-the-flap picture book with cottages in the forefront and a castle in the distance. The play begins when a grandfatherly narrator (Greg Beam) introduces each character and their present situation as they emerge from behind the flaps. Each character is decked out in peasant garb with cartoonish patches and textures, truly belonging to their storybook backdrop.

Each fairytale is isolated from the others in the beginning, freezing in place when it’s time to visit the next. Just as their stories begin to converge, their voices join together at the end of the musical prologue as they all start their parallel journeys into the woods.

The wall stretching across the stage opens up to reveal the woods – a solid white, glittering series of frames with cutout trees on rails.  The rails and all-white set allow for endless options – the frames shift when action is taking place in a different part of the forest while lights play off the surface and transform the entire scene. The second act sees both sets artfully wrecked.

For being the big musical main-stage of the year, “Into the Woods” showcases an impressive range of vocal talent. Sondheim and Lapine’s music and lyrics make for great material for the actors to show off with solos and ensemble pieces. Though the entire cast is noteworthy, fourth-year musical theater undergraduate Courtney Stokes (the witch) and second-year Jacob Haren (Jack) certainly impressed with their strong vocals.

Aside from the music, the entire ensemble is strong. Third-year acting MFA Erika Haaland garners a lot of laughs as Jack’s frazzled mother while fourth-year undergrad Sophie Oda’s innocent Little Red Riding Hood is spot on.  The central figures of the play, the Baker (M.F.A. third year, Jesse Easley) and the Baker’s Wife (M.F.A. third year, Kagiso Paynter) have excellent chemistry and play off each other well.

Though the play thrives on a strong aesthetic sense, extremely talented actors and a playful spirit, it is not without any downsides. Parts of the first act drag, making the pacing feel a touch off-kilter. By the end of the first act though, the production feels ironed out and moves along without hang-ups.

By the time intermission rolls around, the play feels complete – but stay tuned for the second act.  I repeat, it will feel finished, but have patience! The second act escalates “Into the Woods” from a clever re-telling to a witty commentary on outlandish optimism.

For those of you looking for a fun musical put on by your talented fellow anteaters, “Into the Woods” is worth the three hours, $12 student ticket price and the hours of having the sung phrase “into the woods and out of the woods” stuck in your head.

As Cinderella’s Mother advises, “Opportunity is not a lengthy visitor!” This show closes Nov. 20, so get thee to the box office before it’s too late.

Rating: 4 out of 5