Theater Review: Get ‘Into the Woods’ at Muhlenberg College Theatre
“Into the Woods” at Muhlenberg College is a pristine production of the classic musical.
Through thoughtful set and lighting design, a fine performance by the 15-piece orchestra and superb singing and acting by Muhlenberg College Department of Theatre & Dance Department students, “Into the Woods,” through Nov. 3, Empie Theater, Baker Center for the Arts, merits serious attention from fans of the American musical theater.
Director Beth Schachter brilliantly explores the fluid dynamics inherent in the mashup of fairy-tale characters who run hither and yon, to and fro, until they exhaustedly achieve some sense of, if not satori, insight, self-reflection, and a renewed will to carry on.
The Oct. 27 “Into the Woods” performance was seen for this review. The show continues at 8 p.m. Nov. 1; 2 and 8 p.m. Nov. 2 and 2 p.m. Nov. 3. The performances are sold-out.
In some kind of way, “Into the Woods” recalls the great journey stories in American literature, poetry and cinema, among them, Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” (1916), which looks ahead “To where it bent with undergrowth”; Frost’s poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (1922), which warns “The woods are lovely, dark and deep,” and the Judy Garland movie, “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), which urges in a high-pitched manic Munchkin screed to “Follow the yellow brick road.”
Of course, we know how that ended up for Dorothy Gale. She returns home, safe, if not completely sound, rejecting the dreamlike world of Oz and all it represents, saying (shout-out to Elton John and Bernie Taupin), “Goodbye, yellow brick road” for “good-old country comforts.” In contrast, Frost, one senses, continues his walk, albeit, with a sigh of resignation. “Into the Woods” offers no such comfort zone, puts its characters through the mill, while reassuring, if not entirely convincingly, “No One Is Alone.”
In the Muhlenberg production of “Into the Woods,” nothing is as it seems. The woods are as shifty as a thief. Quite literally so. Scenic Designer Bryce Cutler created four moving panels of a realistic-looking, if two-dimensional, stand of trees that slide back and forth across the breadth of the large Empie Theatre stage. You’ve heard of actors chewing the scenery? Here, they dodge the scenery. It’s a fascinating stratagem and it really works. Lighting Designer Gertjan Houben adds to the mystery. The woods become a living, breathing, menacing “thing,” a monster that swallows any soul who dares to enter.
The musical’s main characters are from the “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Rapunzel” and “Cinderella” fairy tales. Because the audience is familiar with the characters, by dint of “Grimms’ Fairy Tales” (1812 - 1857) and Charles Perrault (1628 - 1703) fairy tales and their many permutations in literature, theater, movies and television, each brings his, her, their baggage, knowledge and psychological understanding (and misunderstandings) to the show.
Stephen Sondheim, music and lyrics, and James Lapine, book, brought their A game to the stage for “Into the Woods,” which premiered on Broadway in 1987, receiving several Tonys, including Best Score and Best Book. “Into the Woods” is endlessly fascinating.
Schachter, Music Director and Conductor Ed Bara, Sound Designer Ian Scot, Choreographer Samuel Antonio Reyes, Fight Choreographer Michael G. Chin and Costume Designer Grier Coleman (the characters’ get-ups are endearing) have created an exquisite production of “Into the Woods,” which has the rarefied and exalted quality of a chamber music ensemble and the intensity, youthful exuberance and wonderful naïveté that fine young actors can bring to the stage.
The 20-member cast is uniformly excellent. Laura Frye is spot-on as Narrator (also as Mysterious Man). Each number is a standout, among them, “Agony”: Tommy Gedrich (Cinderella’s Prince), Ryan Murphy (Rapunzel’s Prince); “A Very Nice Prince”: Marin Diddams (Cinderella), Emma Marsters (Baker’s Wife); “I Know Things Know”: Gillian Parker (Little Red Ridinghood); “Stay With Me”: Sophie MacKay (Witch), Alex Goshert (Rapunzel), and “No One Is Alone”: Diddams, Parker, Albert Garrido (Baker, Oct. 27), Jack Armstrong (Jack, Oct. 27).
The trio of Hannah Gershkowitz (Cinderella’s Stepmother), Jullian Burger (Florinda, Cinderella’s Stepsister, Oct. 27) and AnnieRose DiMurro (Lucinda, Cinderella’s Stepsister, Oct. 27) are absolutely hilarious.
Other memorable actors include: Laura Diorio (Jack’s Mother), Charlie Alguera (Cinderella’s Father), Allie Benbenek (Cinderella’s Mother), Connor McCully (Wolf), Abigail Sherman (Red’s Granny), Nachi Lederer (Steward, Oct. 27) and Franny Sewell (Giantess, Oct. 27).
If you’re a fan of Sondheim, musical theater and Muhlenberg College productions, don’t miss “Into the Woods.”
Tickets: Muhlenberg College Department of Theatre & Dance box office, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, Trexler Pavilion for Theatre and Dance, Muhlenberg College, 2400 W. Chew St., Allentown; muhlenberg.edu/theatre; 484-664-3333