Muhlenberg Theatre & Dance ventures ‘Into the Woods’ with Sondheim and Lapine’s beloved, multilayered musical

News Image Tony Award-winning musical fairy tale offers opportunities, challenges for performers; runs Oct. 25 – Nov. 3

By: Clarissa Shirley '22  Friday, October 11, 2019 03:13 PM

News Image
Marin Diddams '21 as Cinderella and Tommy Gedrich '21 as Cinderella's Prince

“Into the Woods,” Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s darkly comic reenvisioning of classic Brothers Grimm, comes to the stage of Muhlenberg College’s nationally recognized Theatre and Dance program, Oct 25 – Nov. 3.

A book by Lapine and score and lyrics by Sondheim weave together the plots of several fairytale favorites, including Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Cinderella. The show features a complex, vocally challenging, and multilayered score; a 15- piece professional orchestra accompanies the production.

“The music really is the pulse of this story,” says the production’s director, Beth Schachter. “It brings you into a world of fantasy where everything feels like a familiar dream.”

The production runs in Muhlenberg’s Empie Theatre, in the Baker Center for the Arts. Tickets and information are available online or at 484-664-3333.

The story starts with a wish: the Baker and his Wife wish for a child; Cinderella wishes to attend the King’s Festival; Jack wishes his cow would give milk. When the Baker and his Wife learn that a Witch’s spell is to blame for their troubles, they set off on a journey to break the curse. All the characters get their wish — for a time. But as they soon learn, a wish granted is no guarantee of happiness.

“It shows the darker consequences of people pursuing what they want, no matter the cost to other people,” Schachter says. “It’s a piece about people who lie a lot to get what they want and how they haven’t foreseen the results of those lies.”

The production’s cast says the show’s greatest challenges and greatest pleasures come from Sondheim’s complex and difficult vocal score.

Sophie MacKay ’20, in the role of the Witch, said she knew the production was going to be special when she and the cast sang the 15-minute prologue for the first time.

''It was a powerful moment,” MacKay says. “You could feel the energy in the room. You could feel how excited everyone was to be there.”

Caden Fraser ’20, playing the Baker, says the cast has been working hard to master the score’s challenges.

“We are at Sondheim’s mercy,” Fraser says. “He’s a wonderful composer. He writes what he wants; you just have to do it.” 

As a composer and lyricist, Sondheim has contributed his talents to half a century of award-winning musicals, dating back to 1961’s “West Side Story.” His best-known works include “Sweeney Todd,” “Company,” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” Sondheim is the winner of more Tony Awards than any other composer in history; he won a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2008. 

“Sondheim’s work comes with heavy demands for its performers, but they are excelling quite brilliantly,” Schachter says. “They all bring heart and humor to the show as well as the lovely vocal work they all have achieved.”

Schachter says she feels confident in the production team as well as the cast.

“The designers for this production are uniting to help tell this story,” Schachter says. “The scenic design by Bryce Cutler emphasizes a sense of constant motion and bewilderment.”

Twenty-foot-tall trees move along with the cast as they progress deeper into the woods. Places and paths appear out of nowhere, and just as quickly disappear.

“It’s a musical in which people are always going someplace,” Schachter says. “It feels as though the forest itself begins to chase people.”

Schachter brings her interest in feminist theatre and theory to this production of a show that explores the “damsel in distress” trope common to fairy tales.

“Cinderella won’t be wearing heels! They’re hard to move around in,” she says. “Serena Williams doesn’t wear heels.”

In that spirit, Schachter says she has encouraged her actors to think about how their characters are portrayed in the show and how they differ from their source material — and also about how our thinking has evolved even since the 1980s, when the show was written. MacKay says the conversation has definitely informed her performance as the Witch.

“Beth has changed the way we as actors think about our characters,” she says. “It’s empowering getting to command the stage as a woman, with everything that’s going on today.”

MacKay says the most exciting challenge of this process has been figuring out how to shape this iconic role to make it her own.

“I’ve been listening to ‘Into the Woods’ since I was 10 years old,” she says. “Bernadette Peters’ voice is engraved into my head. It’s been really fun finding ways to discover the Witch within me.”

Fraser says he has also found some insight into his own identity through his portrayal of the Baker.

“At this point in his life, the Baker is willing to do anything it takes to start a family,” he says. “Entering that parental perspective has evoked emotions in me that I’ve never experienced before.”

Fraser says that the themes of the play are often weighty and the characters do face serious challenges and even tragedies, the musical itself is an escape.

“It’s an entertaining and fast paced show,” he says. “You can escape all of your own problems by sitting in the theatre and witnessing this story unfold.”

“Into the Woods” plays Oct. 25 through Nov. 2. Showtimes are 8 p.m. for Thursday, Friday and Saturday shows, with 2 p.m. matinees on Sunday, Oct. 27 and Nov. 3 and Saturday, Nov. 2.

Showtimes are Friday, Oct. 25, and Saturday, Oct. 26, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 27, at 2 p.m.; Thursday, Oct. 31, and Friday, Nov. 1, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Nov. 2, at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday, Nov. 3, at 2 p.m.

Tickets are $22; $8 for students. Tickets can be purchased online or by phone at 484-664-3333. Performances are in the Empie Theatre in the Baker Center for the Arts, Muhlenberg College, 2400 West Chew St., Allentown.

About Muhlenberg College
Founded in 1848, Muhlenberg is a highly selective, private, four-year residential, liberal arts college offering baccalaureate and graduate programs. With an enrollment of approximately 2,200 students, Muhlenberg College is dedicated to shaping creative, compassionate, collaborative leaders through rigorous academic programs in the arts, humanities, natural sciences and social sciences; selected preprofessional programs, including accounting, business, education and public health; and progressive workforce-focused post-baccalaureate certificates and master’s degrees. Located in Allentown, Pennsylvania, approximately 90 miles west of New York City, Muhlenberg is a member of the Centennial Conference, competing in 22 varsity sports. Muhlenberg is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.