Steven Sondheim’s beloved musical Into the Woods blends and subverts several classic fairy tales. Focusing on the universal theme of wishing for more than one has, the musical follows the stories of the baker and his wife, who wish for a child; Little Red Riding Hood, who wishes to bring bread to her granny; Jack and his mother, who wish for their cow to provide milk; and Cinderella, who wishes to go to the ball; among a plethora of others with their own wants. All the characters must go into the woods to get what they desire, and that’s when things get funky. The characters work against each other to all get their wish—but then realize they’re not feeling so happily-ever-after. Eventually, they must put their selfishness and defensiveness aside and band together to fight a giant, realizing that, despite loss, none of them are alone.
The refrain “no one is alone” inspired Actors Company of Natick (ACON) founder and executive director Patrick Conaway to choose this show. The thematic messaging is what he says sets Into the Woods apart from other musicals. It is also what led ACON to dedicate the show to healthcare workers and their extraordinary efforts during the Covid-19 pandemic.
ACON’s production of Into the Woods ran at Walnut Hill School for the Arts from July 21–31.
Adventure and romance
Only the third production of this fledgling theater company, founded in 2022, Into the Woods had a lot going for it. One of the show’s challenges was highlighting multiple story lines without confusing the viewer, and ACON pulled this off very well. For instance, the set featured three connected platforms: one for the baker and his wife, one for Jack and his mother, and one for Cinderella. These platforms gave viewers an easy visual for differentiating the stories. The use of spotlights trained on individual platforms and characters during key moments also kept the narrative thread clear. The show’s choreography helped establish links and differences between characters. For example, in the opening songs of both acts, while the characters sang about their individual reasons for going into the woods, they danced mostly the same steps to establish their shared destination. In addition, the baker’s wife’s dances with the baker and the prince started with similar steps but developed into something different. This tied together the two romances while emphasizing their differences.
Into the Woods is also known for its humor, which was portrayed especially well by some actors. Milky White, Jack’s cow, was a stuffed animal held by actor Alexander Lyons, who represented the cow’s emotions. Lyons’ facial expressions and body movements added touches of humor to even sad and stressful scenes. Similarly, Allyson McCormick, who played Jack’s mother, loudly splashed hilarity here and there with her over-the-top screaming and shrieking. The princes also did a great job of parodying the role of “fairy tale prince.” We wished that Essie Bertain and Becca Mayerson, the talented singers who played the witch and Cinderella’s stepmother, respectively, had hammed it up a little more with their character voices, which sounded way too normal when we wanted them to be kooky and evil.
Sondheim’s music is known for being technically challenging, but despite a few instances of singers being a bit out of time with each other, the cast and pit band of this production rose to the occasion. We especially loved the high notes of Cinderella, (Emma Robertson), and the sweet tones of Rapunzel, (Natalie Stahl). The pit band had an especially important role in this show, which is held together by musical motifs, many of which are sounded by instruments. We were especially impressed by how well the pit locked in with the singing and actions onstage. Sound effects like knocking at the door were timed perfectly.
ACON’s Into the Woods left viewers thinking about its messaging. It engaged moral questions, such as deciding whose needs are more pressing and when, if ever, stealing is justified. Viewers were left to ponder the definition of “nice” as characters encountered the universal experience of wishing for what one doesn’t have, and the impacts of pursuing one’s wishes. The show reminded viewers that children do listen, so adults should be careful what they say and teach. Most of all, Into the Woods challenged something we are taught from a young age: the perfection of a fairy tale and the existence of a happily ever after.
With all those moral ponderings and challenges to assumptions, we appreciated that ACON delivered a message that is comforting and simple —no one is alone.