Certainly one of the greatest musicals of the last 20 years, “Into the Woods” puts characters from several fairy tales into one story, letting their paths cross and causing each person’s actions to influence the others’ lives.
Then, in Act II, with great depth and insight into human nature, we see what happens after “they all lived happily ever after.” We see that getting what you wish for — marrying a prince, having a child, killing a giant — isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. We see that our actions have consequences, but that action MUST be taken: You can’t choose not to decide. We all have to go “into the woods” and face our fears every now and then.
Written by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, this is a marvelously complex show, and a hard one to do. (Despite the presence of fairy-tale characters, the show is not for kids.) The music is challenging, and the performers must be able to act as well as they can sing (a rarity in musical theater, where the focus is usually on the songs, not the depth of the characters). We’re pleased to report that the Villa Playhouse Theatre in Springville measures up to the task admirably, with nearly every performer filling his or her role with confidence and ability.
At the center are the Baker (Brian McFadyen) and his wife (Esther Covington), rendered childless by a curse-dispensing witch (Kristina Holley) who lives next door. (In a hilarious and impressive bit of pyrotechnics, the witch shoots a ball of flame right at the Baker’s crotch.) To lift the curse, the couple must obtain several items to be used in a spell. These include a cow belonging to beanstalk-climbing Jack (a soulful and subtle Claybourne L. Elder), the hood of sassy, attitude-heavy Little Red Ridinghood (Lesa Sutton, playing the role with marvelous comic ability), and a slipper from Cinderella (Brianna Gray).
Rapunzel (Jessica Perry) is involved, too, as are a couple of un-gentlemanly princes (Craig Nielson and Spencer Barnes).
McFadyen and Covington are superb as the Baker and his wife. While the entire cast sings the intricately rhymed lyrics with agility and clarity, not to mention fine singing voices, these two stand out as professionals. They have chemistry as a couple and carry the show well.
Covington, in particular, lends heartbreaking realism to her character in the second act, when her poor decisions and subsequent realizations lead to one of the play’s saddest moments.
Directed by Kathleen Nutt, this production suffers from poor lighting in quite a few scenes. The idea is apparently for the lighting to reflect the dark turn of events in the story, but it’s often hard to see the performers. Also, a potentially wonderful scene between Jack and the Baker is ruined by having the actors sit on the balcony — above and behind the audience, forcing them to either turn all the way around in their seats, or to be content just hearing them. We should really be able to see their faces in this important scene.
Aside from the small glitches and a few performances that remind us of it, this doesn’t feel like community theater. The Villa has taken upon itself the chore of doing a challenging show, and the production as a whole rises to the occasion.
This was probably the best Villa Playhouse show I had seen to this point, overcoming two potential obstacles: Clay Elder (Jack) was in "Storm Testament," which you will recall was the worst show ever produced by human beings (Clay Elder was the only good thing about it). Also, Brian McFadyen (the Baker) was one of the more annoying characters in "Star Child," which you will recall was the second-worst show ever produced by human beings.
Fortunately, both were excellent in "Into the Woods." In fact, I liked McFadyen quite a bit. He's a talented actor and singer and can do great things when given a good script and director.