More than any other writer, Stephen Sondheim represents the gold standard to which most theatrical companies aspire.
When a high school takes on a Sondheim show, it sets a high bar for its students. Sondheim’s shows traditionally push the envelope with their unconventional stories, complex production values and challenging scores.
Elisa Griffin completed her first year as Westlake High School’s drama teacher by scheduling Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” for the department’s spring musical. In the program notes for the show, which ran for two weekends, April 4 to 6 and 10 to 12, in the school’s Carpenter Family Theatre, Griffin wrote, “Five weeks, wait . . . what? We only have five weeks to mount a Sondheim musical?”
The result exceeded expectations, with the cast putting on a splendid production while enjoying themselves immensely.
“Into the Woods” combines disparate characters from traditional fairy tales in a mash-up whose first half shows them achieving their fondest desires only to have them crash down in a nightmarish second act in which all are threatened by a vengeful giant.
The show begins as the characters are introduced, in separate tableaus, the operative phrase motivating each being “I wish.”
A Baker and his wife wish to have a child; Cinderella wishes she could go to the festival; Jack wishes that his cow, Milky White, would give milk; and Little Red Riding Rood wishes for bread to bring to her grandmother.
Bringing these elements together is a witch, who is responsible for causing the Baker and his wife’s infertility. To break the spell she has cast on them, she demands they go on a scavenger hunt to bring her four items, possessed by the other characters.
Everyone’s respective dilemmas are explained in a lengthy Prologue, which taxes the actors with its rapid-fire interchanging of lines and odd-meter songs.
“Into the Woods” is a great show for young actors because of its ensemble nature, with no one or two characters dominating the story.
Griffin allowed some members to embellish their performances with bits of business, most notably the narrator, played with dour disinterest by Jade Morrisey. Instead of watching the action that she is relating, Morrisey’s narrator passes the time by examining her nails, playing with an Etch-a-Sketch (while Micah Meyers as Jack is singing “Giants in the Sky”) and even creating a whiteboard diagram of the complex storylines being played out.
Paul Hurley was marvelous as the Baker, animated and natural without appearing forced. Isabelle Rogerson was equally splendid in the difficult role of the Baker’s wife; the two sing the touching duet “It Takes Two” while their cow, Milky White (Bella Pulliam), patiently waits for them to finish by puffing on a cigarette under a tree.
Maggie Henry is winsome as Cinderella, while Zuleth Cervantes Caravantes (double-cast for the second weekend) was excellent as the prissy Little Red.
Katelyn Waters plays the Witch, who we discover is not really evil; she’s just an overprotective parent looking after her daughter, Rapunzel (Abby Maurer). Waters sings a very effective “Stay With Me,” one of the shining vocal moments of the show.
Other featured roles include Samantha Smart as a particularly predatory Wolf in vampire’s clothing; Andres Cabrera as the Mysterious Man, who pops up periodically to comment on the proceedings; and Tyler Marquis and Stone Martin as the two preening princes.
When the princes pour on the kitsch in their over-the-top, offkey rendition of “Agony,” they finally catch the attention of the narrator, who casts a disapproving glance at them before returning to her reading of the Westlake High School newspaper.
It’s moments like this that make watching high school theater so unexpectedly enjoyable.