Into the Woods A Fun, Fairytale Romp

Julian Ring, Staff Writer

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Since its 1987 debut, Into the Woods has remained the best way to condense all the Brothers Grimm fairytales into one production. Whether for convenience’s sake or because of its widespread acclaim, the most famous of Stephen Sondheim’s later works has graced major stages from Broadway to West End and back again.

College sophomore Monica Hunter-Hart and Oberlin Musical Theater Association took the show on a slight detour from its usual run last weekend in Wilder Main, adapting the adventures of the show’s nearly 20 characters for a cottage-sized theater. Quality notwithstanding, the fact that this behemoth bramble-romp went off without any histrionic collisions is a feat unto itself. Yet, while the music and singing invigorated at every stage of the mystical journey, a few theatrical shortcomings kept Into the Woods in a tangle.

Playwright James Lapine’s loosely-bound story retained its youthful charm in Hunter-Hart’s show. When a baker and his wife attempt to remove a witch’s curse and bear a child, they must venture across the kingdom in search of magic items. It sounds easy, but branches begin to shoot off rather quickly as the plot gets wrapped around the adventures of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk. It was difficult to keep track of, especially when the narration jumped from interaction to interaction without much time for the audience to digest. This writing style makes Into the Woods much more reliant on plot than substance. Though some reality must be suspended, it was hard to believe the baker’s 30-second transition from grief to determination at the loss of his wife. Too much reality can traumatize your audience; too little makes empathy nearly impossible. The show is a long one as is, but skin-deep emotions made its two and a half hours seem like an eternity.

Music, it could be said, saved the day. The harmonious singing of every cast member made sporadic breaks in the action a treat. Conservatory senior Kaitlin Loeb, with her vibrato-soaked voice did justice to every Cinderella who has come before her, and the sincere tenor (not to mention brilliant acting) of College junior Colin Wulff as the baker received shouts of approval, both solo and in collaboration with College first-year Emma Leiken and College junior Will Hofmann. The two princes (College junior Hayes Biche and Conservatory senior Seth Nachimson) shared several fine duets as they lamented over their fickle brides-to-be. A small orchestra, scaled down for the sake of space, did their job excellently. Not once did they stray out of time or overpower the leads. Musical director and College sophomore Adam Forman made the tunes tight and the vocals tighter, and for that he deserves a second round of applause.

Most of the actors had trouble projecting their spoken lines past the first few rows, though, causing this reviewer to miss several key bits of dialogue. This was not only annoying but also gave audience members little incentive to try and follow a story that couldn’t even be heard. With such a plot-driven production, volume is absolutely essential, and its blatant absence cast the wrong kind of spell over Into the Woods. On the other side of the spectrum, the endless screaming could have been toned down just a bit. We can see that Rapunzel has issues without losing our hearing.

Lights and sound were solid if occasionally uncoordinated. A dark blue draped across the thatched and thistley background added a certain vulnerability to particularly important scenes, just as bright spotlights and a magical jingle pointed out the clever use of the rafters. It’s tough to create a convincing mood unique to a given production. With a combination of flashing red lights and thunderous sound effects, OMTA pulled it off very nicely.

Into the Woods made every effort to take us along for its magical ride. Sitting at the front of the room, that may have been exactly what happened. There, it might have been possible to lose oneself in the hyperactive plotline and not miss a word. For the rest of us, though, the experience fell flat. To be sure, the cast and crew did many things very well. They just weren’t the things that keep viewers hooked during a show. Vivacious musical numbers and superb acting pushed the show towards greatness, but almost three hours of throwaway storyline pulled just as hard in the opposite direction.

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