Fairy tales spring to life and intertwine in Into the Woods playing at Toronto’s George Ignatieff Theatre
Bringing the classic musical Into the Woods to the George Ignatieff Theatre, the Trinity College Dramatic Society does an admirable job at tackling Stephen Sondheim’s difficult score with a crew of talented young artists.
The musical that might’ve started the fairy tale mash-up trend, Into the Woods follows the tale of a baker and his wife as they seek to lift a family curse that’s left them unable to have children. Following the directions of the witch who initiated the curse, the couple venture into the woods to ward off the spell and meet a variety of fairy tale characters along the way, from Cinderella to Little Red Riding Hood to Jack (and the beanstalk) and more. Each character’s story intertwines with the others as we’re drawn into their plights and self-discoveries, and how complicated it actually is to live “happily ever after”.
Sondheim isn’t an easy librettist to produce, and Into the Woods is loaded with intricate songs rife with contrapuntal tunes, unexpected melodic turns and some fast-moving lyrics. There’s a dark undercurrent to the production that toes the line between the fairy tales we’ve become familiar with and the source material which the Grimms framed their tales around. Into the Woods spends the first act moving through the motions–albeit with a few welcome twists–of what we’ve come to expect from our fairy stories, and then completely upends that post-intermission.
I’d really like to commend director Peter Perri and musical director Giustin MacLean for pulling off such a strong production. I was able to catch the Trinity College Dramatic Society’s performance of Frogs last year – coincidentally another Sondheim piece –and was pleasantly surprised at the calibre of show a student-run theatre initiative was able to produce. You can tell there was a lot of care and thought put into this show and for the most part, it definitely pays off.
There were a few standout performances for me, although I have to say the talent across the board was impressive. I was enthralled by the Baker’s Wife – played by a strong-willed Amanda Greer – who stood her ground as a leading gal. I was enamoured by the singing voices of Marie-Odile Samson (as the Witch) and Emma Smith (as Cinderella) as well. While I felt Mitch Wedgewood’s Wolf was a little lacking in edge, he won me over as the smoothly arrogant Cinderella’s Prince, and his duet with Rapunzel’s Prince – played by a falsely sheepish Philip Russel – was delightful. My guest also really enjoyed Allison Spiegel’s feisty Little Red Riding Hood.
Karthy Chin’s set design was both functional and whimsical, with a huge red storybook taking over a third of the stage that doubled as Rapunzel’s tower, and a pack of well-placed tree stumps set up centre stage representing the woods and also serving as reminders for the Baker and his Wife on what items they needed to lift their curse.
The tree stumps served as clever cover for the live band, positioned on stage and led by musical director Giustin MacLean.
I was also impressed with Victoria Reedman’s lighting design, specifically how she used it to characterize the giant, who would have been just a disembodied voice without the flicker and pulse of the lights.
I did feel that there were some technical issues throughout the evening, mostly with the sound levels of the actors’ mics versus the band’s piano. A lot of the group numbers sounded muddled and were difficult to hear and understand, as well as some of the softer-singing members of the cast. The giant’s voice in particular felt less impactful as it sounded rather far away, whether or not that was a directing choice I’m unsure, but I thought the tension of those scenes was dampened a little by it.
There were also some staging decisions that I thought were fun and interesting in theory, but perhaps weren’t executed as well as they could have been. Some key a-ha moments appeared a bit sloppy, with sluggish blackouts that interrupted the flow of a generally well-directed and well-choreographed show
An altogether enjoyable and high energy performance, I’d recommend this one to any musical theatre buffs, fans of current popular television a la Once Upon a Time, and anyone who’s ever been curious about what happens to fairy tale characters after they’ve reached the end of their story.