“Be careful what you wish for; you may just get what you want.” It’s an adage we’ve all heard at some point. Throughout life, as we age, perhaps we undertsand it better. When our wishes do come true, often times the path we take to get them comes with an unexpected journey. And what we learn along the way—patience, tolerance, compassion, etc.—are the real defining moments of who we are.
So goes the tale of Stephen Sondheim’s and James Lapine’s Tony winner, “Into the Woods.” The play made its debut in California before heading to New York in the mid ‘80s—right alongside the opening of “The Phantom of the Opera,” which managed to sweep Broadway.
“While other theater nerds were singing Lloyd-Webber, I had the cassette tape of ‘Into the Woods’ in my Walkman,” local thespian Jeff Phillips says. Phillips will play the Baker in a story that intertwines many Brothers Grimm tales we’ve all come to know well: “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Rapunzel,” and “Cinderella.”It’s tied together with an original story about a baker and his wife who want a child; however, after a witch puts a curse on them, they must collect items in the woods in order for her to reverse it.
“I think ‘Into the Woods,’ while told via story-book archetypes, is [Sondheim’s] most real and personal work,” Phillips explains. “He respects his audience enough to allow them to come to their own conclusions about what the stories represent.”
It begins with a young narrator who, from his treehouse, guides audiences into a mystical forest where characters of fantasy live. While Act I follows the stories we all know well, Act II takes us into the after of “happily ever after.” Does Cinderella actually find the perfect life with her Prince Charming? Is Jack happy not to have his beanstalk and a fantasy world to escape into? Lessons and morals pepper it at every turn, and reality seeps into the script and twists it all up in complete fascination.
“The stories we tell are important,” director Jason Aycock discerns, “not just in a play or story-book fashion, but we are setting examples for children as they grow. If we say it’s alright to kill a giant, children, on some level, are getting the message that murder is acceptable. We have to make sure that we leave a pure legacy.”
Aycock envisions Opera House Theatre Company’s season-ender a parallel to the versions of “Into the Woods” held in Regent’s Park in London in 2010 and Central Park in New York in 2012. “The show is set in a much larger style-set than the original,” he clarifies of the treehouse, which is being constructed by Terry Collins of Scenic Asylum. “It works well with the other basic concept of having a young boy as the narrator. He is telling the story as a way to keep himself from being scared as he is lost in the woods.” Quinn Gonzalez (who played Charlie Bucket in Thalian Association’s ‘Willy Wonka’) will be the narrator, a choice Aycock is proud to have made. “He has such heart,” the director says. However, the entire cast will make the price of admission worth it.
“It has so many of Wilmington’s best and brightest,” Aycock confirms. “Jeff Phillips and Heather Setzler as the Baker and Baker’s Wife sing beautifully together and are wonderful to watch. Kendra Goehring-Garrett as Cinderella is so sweet. Paul Teal plays a very genuine Jack. And Joy Gregory is incredible to watch as the Witch. And that’s only six of them; I have 14 more characters that are just as wonderful!”
The ensemble shares equal responsibility to engage audiences and compel: Not one stands out as a “lead.” They all agree the most challenging part of doing the show comes with its hefty text of dialogue and song. In fact, they refer to it as “Into the Words.”
“At any given time during rehearsal it looks like the cast is studying for midterms: heads buried in books, writing out note cards,” Setzler says.
“We want so badly to tell this fantastic story and to tell it well.”
“This show is mental gymnastics,” Phillips agrees. “Heather and I were joking that it’s a mental version of ‘A Chorus Line’—a challenge for even the most experienced actors to learn all the nuances of the music and the lyrics. We are putting this show up in three and a half weeks; most theatre companies will take twice as long.”
The beautiful music accompanying it all is generally tough to perform, too, because of its intricacies. However, its ease will come with Lorene Walsh leading the orchestra.
“Sondheim writes for the actor,” Goehring-Garrett says. “The emotions are written in the music. It’s really captivating. ”
“In general, Sondheim shows make you really dependent on your fellow castmates,” Phillips adds. “The music is hard, the script is dense, and you build a bond with your fellow participants.”
Some of Aycock’s favorite tunes are heard in “Children Will Listen” and “Agony.” The beauty of one song’s poingnancy balances the clever wit of the other, and showcases the scope of storytelling and emotions portrayed. “The show is traditional musical theatre, as much as a Sondheim show can be,” Aycock says.
“There are haunting melodies that’ll hit you in the heart and catchy tunes that’ll get stuck in your head,” Setzler promises.
Disney will release the film version of “Into the Woods” this Christmas, and Sondheim already has provided updates to the script to accomodate the big screen. But why wait five months to enjoy its magic when local talent will perform it live at Thalian Hall? The show opens Wednesday.
Into the Woods
Thalian Hall, 310 Chesnut St.
Aug. 27-31 and Sept. 5-7, 8 p.m.; Sun. matinees, 3 p.m. • $29