‘Into the Woods’

Story by Carolyn Tiry

There’s a lot happening in “Into the Woods.” Act one could be considered one complete story on its own. Luckily, the audience will already be familiar with many, if not all, of the show’s characters.

“Into the Woods” takes several of the Grimm brothers’ most famous characters, including Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Jack and his beanstalk, and intertwines their tales to make something completely original with Sondheim’s unmistakable touch of dark comedy.

A witch has cursed a baker and his wife with childlessness and tasks them with completing several missions in order to lift the curse. In the course of doing as the witch asks, the baker and his wife cross paths with the various other fairy tale characters.

Director and professor of theater F. Reed Brown puts on a traditional interpretation of the musical, keeping the atmosphere similar to what you may have seen in storybooks.

The costumes are lovely and detailed to the point where you can almost recognize the characters simply from their outfits. And the set design, while sparse enough to fit several scenes, envelops you immediately.

Though there were some occasional hiccups and flat notes in the singing, overall the cast did a splendid job of taking on the songs of a notoriously difficult songwriter in
Stephen Sondheim.

The coordination between the motions of the actors and the cadence of the music also gives the performance that little extra bit of pizazz. When feet get stomped on, cymbals crash, and when magic beans are handed over, single xylophone notes sound. It works for not only comedic effect but also helps to create a fuller atmosphere.

Sophomore Tyler Graf as Jack, senior Jessica McIlquham as the baker’s wife and junior Marie Gustafson as the witch gave especially evocative performances.

Graf manages to balance the occasional immaturity that comes with playing a child character with the natural comedy of a Sondheim musical.

McIlquham absolutely nails the comedic beats, generally using exaggerated body language and pauses to get the most out of the script and from the audience.

And Gustafson is perhaps the best of the cast, commanding the stage even when she’s hidden under makeup, a mask and a baggy, raggedy costume.

It’s the drama where the production hits a bit of trouble, though that isn’t saying much. There is a heel turn from comedy to drama in the second act and even several more throughout it, and they happen fast enough to give the audience emotional whiplash.

For the most part, the cast and the orchestra handle these changes quite well, though it’s slightly jarring the first time it happens.

Whether you’re a fan of musicals or not, Eau Claire’s production of “Into the Woods” is top-notch in almost every aspect, and certainly succeeds in casting its spell.

*Note: You can listen to an extended interview with director F. Reed Brown for more information about the production