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Theater Review: Into The Woods

Mark Bugnaski / WMU Theater

The Western Michigan University Theatre’s production of “Into the Woods” plays in the York Courtyard Theatre through October 10. WMUK’s Gordon Bolar has this review.

A few decades ago when I first learned of a new musical based on the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, a question entered my mind: Can you take storybook characters, supposedly meant for children, and hold the attention of an adult audience for entire evening in the theatre?

I would submit the University Theatre’s current offering of “Into the Woods” as a resounding answer in the affirmative to this question. I would also cite this production as an example of a musical which succeeds on every level including acting, song, musical support, design, direction and choreography.

Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics and James Lapine’s book artfully combine characters taken from the stories of “Little Red Riding Hood”, “Jack and The Beanstalk”, “Rapunzel” and “Cinderella”. A childless couple, a baker and his wife, tie all of these stories together in their attempt to fulfill the ultimatum issued by The Witch, avoid her curse, and secure the happiness they believe a newborn will bring to their home.

A central challenge for any production of “Into the Woods” is making familiar storybook characters human and fully dimensional, rather than relying on stereotypical cartoon portraits that render all maidens perfectly beautiful, all witches horribly wicked and all princes charming and as rigid as the plastic royal mask seen in a Burger King commercial.

The University Theatre’s tight ensemble shines in meeting this challenge. After a rousing Prologue introducing the characters, Mason Gratton and Ally Taylor, as the Baker and his barren Wife, bring humanity and color to the stage as they set on their quirky quest to secure items The Witch has requested: a cape, a slipper, a cow and a lock of golden hair.

On their journey through the forest, the childless couple experiences believable hopes, frustrations, set-backs and triumphs as they encounter familiar fairy tale characters including Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Jack with his milk cow.

Credit Mark Bugnaski / WMU Theater
A scene from the WMU Theatre production of Into The Woods

In each encounter, Gratton and Ally act as a humanizing element for the characters they meet through clever provocation, humorous negotiation and intimate conversations, through both dialogue and song in numbers like “The Cow as White as Milk” and “Maybe They're Magic."

As the pair nears their goal of requisite items, the winsome lyrics of “It Takes Two” encapsulate their mission and relationship: “We need four, we have three, it takes two.”

An engaging duet by Jack Doherty and Adam Nyhoff, as Cinderella’s and Rapunzel’s respective Princes, sets the stage for love and loss around the castle with their lovers’ lament, “Agony.'

Act II begins with another kind of lament, as “So Happy," delivered by the company and Narrator Isaiah Lee, introduces an important theme in the Second Act: Living happily ever after can be a drag when the object of your desire turns out to be something not so desirable at all. Just ask Jack, as he hides from the Giant after stealing the golden harp at the top of the beanstalk.

An exceptional performance by Megan Ludwig as Cinderella underscores the illusive nature of happiness. Ludwig successfully navigates her character’s transitions, including the rise to royalty from a domestic, as well as her climb back down to reality after being two-timed by her Prince.

Credit Mark Bugnaski / WMU Theater
A scene from WMU Theatre's Into The Woods

Standout numbers for Ludwig along the way include “Cinderella at the Grave” and “A Very Nice Prince." Ludwig concludes the show with her character’s feet planted firmly on the ground in the hauntingly beautiful “No One is Alone," performed with Gratton, Lulu Bushman as a spirited Red Riding Hood, and Teddy Huff as the sometimes foolish but courageous, Jack.

A commanding performance by Grace Carroll, as The Witch, reveals a different kind of transition. After drinking the milk from Jack’s cow, she changes from a shriveled screeching hag to a younger and vibrant woman. Powerful songs like “Our Little World” and “Lament” reveal a sympathetic side to her character as she realizes that spells are no longer enough to hold a grown daughter anymore. Finally, it is the realization of fully dimensional characters, portrayed with foibles, flaws, and the positive capabilities to overcome loss, that make this production of “Into the Woods” an entertaining and appealing experience throughout the two and a half hour performance.

Gordon Bolar was WMUK's General Manager from 2011 to 2016. He joined the station in 2006 as Development Director. After retiring as General Manager, Gordon has continued to review theater for WMUK.
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