Into the Woods Hits the Stage Near the Shore
by Cassiopeia Guthrie, April 24, 2022
No one is alone, least of all the audience members who packed in the line outside Sunshine Brooks Theatre to see Saturday night’s production of Into the Woods, a co-production by New Village Arts and Oceanside Theatre Company running through May 1. Located on North Coast Highway in Oceanside, the intimate venue was abuzz as the 100+ audience trickled into the space and joined the impacted restroom, concession, and COVID lines, resulting in the show starting a few minutes behind schedule. It was absolutely worth the wait.
Into the Woods, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, debuted in San Diego in 1986, but has a timeless feel. Contributing most to this, most likely, is the underlying story - or, to be more clear, stories… after all, Into the Woods is known for tying together a variety of fairy tale characters created by the Brothers Grimm. While the narrator begins the story by introducing Jack (of the infamous beanstalk), a baker and his wife, Cinderella, and Little Red Ridinghood in isolation, they don’t stay that way for long. In fact, the musical’s plot hinges on the reasons and ways in which their tales intersect, thanks to the manipulations of a witch.
Of particular note in this production of Into the Woods were the stellar vocal performances by the cast as they confidently tackled this challenging score, the attention to detail by actors as they brought their characters to life with fidelity to director Kristianne Kurner’s vision, and the delightful, well-executed choreography by Alyssa Ajay Junious. Concurrent stories (and the appearance of a giant!) are challenging to portray in any size theater, even one as intimate as this one, but each look and movement read as intentional and authentic throughout the production.
One standout was Rae Henderson-Gray as The Witch. Her finesse and subtle acting choices created unexpected empathy for her character, and her resonant power belt filled the theatre, but she was also unafraid to lean into soft moments of quiet tension. The Wolf/Cinderella’s Prince were alternately smarmy and charming in exactly the right ways; this duo is traditionally played by a single actor and Tanner Vydos had the roles on lock, garnering a great deal of laughter for the energy in his caricature-like entrances, dance work, and vocal prowess. The Baker was played with an entirely different tack, but to great success; Luke Monday’s realistic and nuanced character work was perfect in creating an audience hero of a simple childless baker, and his warm vocal timbre and thoughtful acting choices shone throughout the production, reaching a pinnacle in “No More” in Act II. Cinderella was also played to perfection by Megan Carmitchel, who tackled her songs with exquisite grace and a beautiful tone. Carmitchel’s commitment to the emotional journey of the role was impressive from the house and the cast’s interactions with her: Jack (Kevin Phan), Baker’s Wife (Sydney Joyner), and Little Red (Jasmine January) were beautifully authentic, despite taking place in a fantasy world.
The set for Into the Woods was simple and lacked the finesse typically seen in a production of this caliber. It featured static elements including Jack’s house, two columns intended to be interpreted as tree trunks, a trio of arches lined with bookshelf cubbies and LED lights, a castle tower, and a nook designated as a sort of study for the Narrator. Two wagon-mounted platform/stair units were periodically brought on and off stage to represent three venues within the arches: Baker’s house, Grandmother’s house, and the castle. However, a modern-feel wood and chain element suspended across the stage was placed in a location where the lighting designer was able to take advantage by creating depth and visual interest in an otherwise oversimplistic set-up. Similarly, while some costumes were stunning and texturally interesting, such as those worn by the Witch and the Baker’s Wife, others seemed ill fitted and incohesive with the palette of the production (Cinderella and Rapunzel).
What was lacking in certain production elements, however, was redeemed by the skilled work of the evening’s stage management team - the (many, many, many) sound cues for the evening were tight and balanced and the actors performed in conjunction to them with a confidence that made it clear that their rehearsals were just as tight: kudos to the director.
Into the Woods continues for 5 remaining shows: Wednesday, April 27 (2 p.m.), Friday, April 29 (8 p.m.), Saturday, April 30 (2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.) and Sunday, May 1 (8 p.m.) and is a delightful foray into a fairytale evening out. Tickets: https://newvillagearts.org/events/.