By Eva Phillips
Musical theatre camp (the aesthetic, not summer camp) is a certain audacious brand of camp that is not meant for everyone. Brash, flamboyant, micro-referential, and aggressively lyrical, it takes the already sepia-toned flair of camp and revs into the highest gear imaginable in-between furious choreography. For the uninitiated or un-enthused, musical theatre camp walks (or prances) along an inscrutably fine line between satire and weirdly-earnest cheesiness, and the musical composition can seem jarringly over-the-top. In the canon, Stephen Sondheim sets the precedent for musical theatre camp, his shows routinely testing the limits of indulgence in pomp, effusive sentiment, and silliness. If you’re on board, Sondheim is a wild delight; if you’re not, I imagine the experience of sitting through a Sondheim show is…confusing.
To be absolutely clear, I am completely on board with musical theatre camp and a Sondheim acolyte. And few shows bring me the degree of unfettered joy that Sondheim’s 1986 work Into the Woods does. When I learned University of Pittsburgh’s UP Stages was endeavoring to tackle Into the Woods , I was cautiously excited (so excited and scared, you could say). Into the Woods is a production that can easily turn disastrous if not executed with meticulous precision.The musical is a surreal intermingling of Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault fairy tales, the story follows a baker and his wife who, in their quest to conquer their infertility, must forge a deal with a hideous but powerful witch who has cursed the baker because his father stole her beans. At the same time, a young boy, Jack (of Jack and the beanstalk fame, so perhaps you can figure out where this is going if you don’t know the show already), must sell his cow at the behest of his destitute mother, who is vexed by her son’s nonsensical nature and penchant for befriending farm animals. Even still yet, an unfortunate yet resilient young woman, Cinderella, is taunted by her sinister stepmother and siblings, yet refuses to relinquish her dream to go to the king’s ball. The baker and his wife, Jack, and Cinderella all find themselves caught in one another’s paths when they must enter into the woods (get it?) to actualize their various dreams and goals. Oh, also, they come across a binge-eating Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, two princes, a mysterious, rhyming old man, and Cinderella’s deceased mother who sings advice from a tears-watered tree. There are giants too, but don’t worry–they’re mostly in the sky. Mostly.
The story is as outrageous as it sounds, and the songs and choreography only serve to amplify the ludicrousness of the narrative. It was my utter joy to not only be pleased with the UP Stages team’s adaption of Into the Woods, but to leave the show feeling elated and blown away. Before the swelling music of the opening evening commenced–which was provided by an incredibly gifted group of musicians–I could not look away from the impeccably lush, realistic set on the stage before me. Scenic Designer Gianni Downs and the rest of the team involved in constructing the stage and set, which involved nimbly coordinating prop and set movement at critical moments throughout out the show, should be applauded robustly for their work. Their efforts give the set the necessary transcendent quality to allow the audience to more efficaciously slip into the world of outlandish imagination that the story demands in order to be enjoyed.
I have not had the pleasure of seeing most of the young, tremendously talented young actors that took the stage by force in this production, but I eagerly await the next chance I get to watch them perform. Into the Woods is a the kind of show that certainly has definable “leads”–the baker and his wife; Cinderella; the Witch; Jack; and arguably Little Red Riding Hood–but is a show that depends on impeccable performances from everyone on stage. This of course means that even the smaller roles can be highly coveted, particularly if transformed by compelling actors. Such was the case with Davis Weaver, playing Rapunzel’s nameless prince, and Dan Mayhak, playing both Cinderella’s prince (and brother to Rapunzel’s suitor) and the infamous Big Bad Wolf. Both young men exude effortless charm, phenomenal comedic and musical timing, and diligent gracefulness that lets them easily steal each scene they inhabit. Their hilarious duet “Agony,” a laughably maudlin, woe-is-me competition, is every bit as thunderous and uproarious as Sondheim could have possibly envisioned.
The performers leading the charge as the Baker’s Wife, Cinderella and The Witch each possess skills that are at once polished and exquisitely honed while still managing to come across as relatable and organic. As the Baker’s Wife, Julia Kreutzer takes on perhaps the most emotionally fraught character (a major feat in this musical) with vigorous aplomb. Kreutzer ably channels the hilarious delivery and timing reminiscent of Jillian Bell, while balancing the character’s snarky frustration with her enchantingly beautiful and soulful vocal performances. Lucy Pratt, who brings Cinderella to life, not only gives one of the best vocal performances I have encountered in quite some time, but her complex portrayal of the iconic fairy tale heroine is refreshing to watch. The Witch is, in the history of Into the Woods, the most sought-after and daunting character in the story–after all, there’s a reason she’s been played by an assortment of legends including Vanessa Williams, Donna Murphy, Meryl Streep, and, of course, Bernadette Peters (who, sorry Meryl and everyone else, owns this role for all time). Emily Cooper unequivocally slays the task of playing the garden-loving, grudge-holding, fiercely maternal, violently power-hungry Witch, and her performance is start to finish totally enrapturing, capturing both the sinister glee and the furious sorrow of the Witch.
If I had the ability to write a 5 page review, I would profusely sing the praises of every member of the cast. Each young actor was absolutely divine and memorable in their own way, and flawlessly in sync as an ensemble. Missing out on their dynamic performances would be a disservice. Niffer Clarke has masterfully executed this flamboyant masterpiece, and the UP Stages team has a whole truly makes Into the Woods their own. Into the Woods may be the epitome of musical theatre camp, but I would be shocked if this production couldn’t convert even the least-frivolous, anti-camp audience member. It is that enchanting.
Into the Woods runs through April 14th. For more information, please visit their site.
Photography Credit: Samantha Saunders Studio
Eva Phillips is celebrating her third year in Pittsburgh, third year writing for PGH in the Round, and twenty-seventh year not getting murdered (shockingly, despite all odds). She relocated to the brittle Steel City from Virginia to pursue her Masters in Literary and Cultural Studies at CMU (with a concentration in film theory and film criticism, and intersections with feminism and gender), and has spent the past few years in Pittsburgh cultivating her writing career, developing her blog https://www.tuesgayswithmorrie69.net/, raising two show cats, and widening her perspectives on the ever-evolving spectrum of theatre. She only has one Les Miserables tattoo out of her 32 tattoos, and she finds that morally reprehensible.
Categories: Archived Reviews