Into the Woods: Sonoma State University Musical Review

When Into the Woods first premiered in theaters in 2014, crowds were fangirling to the max. Written by James Lapine and music by the brilliant Stephen Sondheim, it’s a musical mashup featuring the classic Grimm’s Brothers fairytales from Cinderella to Little Red Riding Hood. Unsurprisingly it was a box office smash and later won a Tony Award. After all the praise, I was ecstatic to see it performed by talented peers at my own school. I attended the play Thursday February 11th, and to everyone’s joy it was a completely sold out show. The play’s tagline may be “Be careful what you wish for,” but after seeing it for myself, I couldn’t have wished for anything more.

The Departments of Music and Theatre Arts & Dance coproduced the piece, with music direction by SSU’s own Lynne Morrow and adaptation/stage direction by Marty Pistone. Featuring a live orchestra, strikingly gorgeous costumes and sets, and a killer cast, Sonoma’s students knocked this production out of the park. The portrayal of the characters and classic tales is brilliantly executed, and the cast’s dedication and passion truly paid off. Their on-stage chemistry was clear even from the audience, and they worked together seamlessly to produce a show that was enthralling from start to finish.

The play tells many twisted tales, following multiple storylines all at once as the characters connect to each other. They pop in and out of each other’s lives, making special appearances in each of their stories for different purposes. Every character has a wish, which drives them into the woods and brings them together there:

To see, to sell, to get, to bring, to make, to lift, to have, to live…

Throughout their adventures in the woods, they make questionable choices and are forced to examine their values. Their morals, or lack thereof, are tested time and time again. Sometimes things work out for our protagonists, and sometimes they don’t, as is the case in real life. The play is a fairytale for sure, but with applicable life lessons: “children will listen,” “you are not alone,” and "nice is different than good.” The characters are there for one another for all of the play's ups and downs, helping friends or strangers reach their goals as they suffer and succeed to eventually reach their own happily ever afters.

Act one lures us in with the classic “Once upon a time…” and the play focuses in on Cinderella, played by Emily Thomason, as she slaves away in the kitchen pining to attend the Prince’s festival. Her cruel Stepmother, played by Laura Henry, and her Stepsisters Lucinda and Florinda played by Karenna Miller Pullen and Adriana Lazar, taunt and tease her over her raggedy clothes and the mockery she would make of herself at the festival: a lowly kitchen girl. Desperate to find a way to get into the festival without their help, Cinderella ventures into the woods to consult her mother’s grave to find a solution.

Next, we turn our attention to Jack who is played by Lawrence Ricardo and his Mother, Elizabeth Robertson. Their woes are many, as they are clearly poor. What’s more, Jack’s beloved cow Milky White, who is played by Hannah Hobbs, has stopped producing milk. This moves Jack’s Mother to send Jack into the woods to the market to sell poor Milky White, for no less than five pounds.

Finally we shift to a Baker played by Brett Mollard and his Wife, played by Natasha Potts, who are happy but desperate to change their childless life. The next character enters and we meet Little Red Riding Hood, played by Emily Rice, is young girl from the village. She stops by their bakery to beg some sweets and bread for her granny, whom she is going to visit in the woods. She gets the treats, as well as a basket from the more than slightly exasperated Baker, and goes off into the woods where she meets a Big Bad Wolf, played by Ted Smith.

Back in the village the Baker is visited by his next-door neighbor, the Witch, played by Allie Evans. Here they learn many things. One was that the Baker has a sister. While the Baker’s mother was pregnant with her, she craved greens, which the Baker’s father stole from the Witch’s garden. The Witch caught him and demanded they give up their child to her, to make amends. In addition to taking their child, the Witch put a spell on their family, so that they would always be barren. But she offers the distraught Baker and his Wife a chance to break the spell if they bring her four items: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold. So off the Baker goes, into the woods, to find the items for the witch.

Through these characters we meet Rapunzel, played by Katie Evans, whose connection to the other characters is revealed over time but is one of the cleverest twists in the tale. A severe Steward, played by Allan Chornak, accompanies the royal family and factors into a number of the play's more challenging moments. Cinderella’s Prince, also played by Ted Smith, and his brother Rapunzel’s Prince, played by Malik-Charles Wade, also make several comedic appearances. These kind if goofy brothers have a reputation for being unfaithful, and both live up to it. It’s because of them that we later meet Snow White, played by the lovely Maddie Crook and Sleeping Beauty, played by the multi-faceted Hannah Hobbs, also known as Milky White.

And even if that seems to be a lot to follow, sit tight, because that’s only the first act. The second act showcases a giant guest, which comes as a surprise to the many who don’t know the full tale.

Although the plot thickens and twists so much it almost makes one’s head spin, it was executed so expertly that the audience was spellbound the entire time. We were on the edges of their seats, always waiting for the other-considerably large in this case-shoe to drop. The play touches every human emotion possible, ranging from absolute hilarity to tear-jerking songs that appeal to audience members of every age. The play was amazing in it’s physical elements, of course. The costumes are bright and detailed, nearly works of art in themselves. The sets made use of every inch of available stage without becoming overly crowded or confusing to the viewer, and were creative and beautiful without sacrificing utility. Their interpretations of scenes like Cinderella’s Mother’s grave and Rapunzel’s tower were as creative as could be, aesthetically pleasing as well as functional. Additionally, the music and sound effects from the live orchestra took the whole play to another level.  They combined perfectly with the singing to move everyone to side splitting laughter or weeping, depending on the scene. The actors timed their actions and responses perfectly to the music and it blended so beautifully it may as well have been recorded.

And it appears they had as much fun making the play as the audience had watching it. Rapunzel, Katie Foster, said she was proud of her colleagues and friends as she watched them grow and develop throughout the play, and their "always well-meaning, positive talk" made her feel surrounded by kindred spirits who shared her love for the "strange world of theatre". Allan Chornak, the Steward in the play, describes the intense effort required to accomplish such a "large undertaking...[the cast] put about 30-40 hours of work into the show every week..." But it paid off in the end, and as for the actors themselves, he says they "enjoy seeing each other day in and day out". The actors also spoke to the talent of their fearless leaders Marty Pistone and Lynne Morrow. Lawrence Ricardo described Pistone as "one of the best directors [he had] ever worked with," and said he helped the cast get into the mindset of the characters flawlessly.  Allan Chornak said Pistone and Morrow were able to "bring together a great cast," and in his opinion, "there isn't a doubt...that the people they selected could be on Broadway". As a pleased viewer, I would have to agree, and applaud the directors for their outstanding choices.

Sonoma’s Departments of Music and Theatre Arts & Dance will never cease to amaze their audience, and the gargantuan effort that went into creating this play should be applauded repeatedly, with standing ovations. Congratulations to all the actors and producers and writers who made this awesomely funny and moving play possible, and thank you for your passion and dedication.