University Theatre, University Opera and the Wisconsin Union Theatre partnered to produce the university’s most involved theatre production of the school year so far, "Into the Woods." The show features over 90 cast and crew members and is showing in the Wisconsin Union Theatre from Feb. 21-24.
The show plays to the strengths of the many talented students involved. From outstanding first-year performers whom I hope to see in many more shows with the University Theatre (cough, Christian Brenny, cough) to talented second and third-year students in the last leg of their collegiate journey (cough, Emily Vandenberg, cough), the opening night cast impressed all with their harmonious group chemistry and undeniable talent.
"Into the Woods" takes audience members into the fairytale realm, where the childhood tales we all know and love are intertwined. The central stories featured in the musical are Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel — all of which are now occurring within the same timeline and geographic area.
The main characters of "Into the Woods" are a lowly baker, played by Michael Kelley, and his wife, played by Emily Vandenberg. The pair ache to have children but are unable to do so because of a curse set on them by their resentful witch neighbor, played by Bryanna Plaisir, who has a vendetta against the baker’s late father.
Plaisir was a show-stopping performer who brought depth to the complex character. Her best moment is a toss up, but it may have been her awe-inspiring performance of the poignant solo “Last Midnight.”
The only way the witch will lift her curse of infertility off of the duo is if they venture into the forest and return with four specific items: “the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn and the slipper as pure as gold.”
And so, the journey begins. As Jack, played by Christian Brenny, ventures out to sell his cow Milky White at market after having received explicit instructions from his mother — played by Quanda Johnson — to accept no less than five pounds for her, he is interrupted by the baker and his wife, who convince poor Jack to let the cow go for a bunch of “magic” beans.
Brenny played the naive child with subtlety, allowing hilariously innocent lines such as “Now I have two friends: a cow and a harp!” to shine by delivering them off-handedly. Johnson offset this perfectly by conveying the fed-up mother who was at her wits end with the flighty boy.
The baker’s wife runs into Cinderella in the woods as she’s on her way from the prince’s three-day festival. Senior vocal performance major Elisheva Pront appeared as Cinderella on Thursday and Saturday, and her vocal expertise was obvious from her first “I wish” in the opening number, “Prologue: Into the Woods.” Her endurance and range were later displayed again in “On the Steps of the Palace,” where the princess’s turmoil and a bunch of sticky goo leave her stuck to the stairs, unsure of what to do.
Little Red Riding Hood comes into the story when the baker goes after her cape. In this subplot, Meghan Stecker played Little Red, and her youthful voice and exuberance made her fun to watch. Especially when this was youthfulness was ironically offset by Red Riding Hood’s major personality shift within the musical, where she develops a twisted and blood-thirsty mindset after being saved from inside of the wolf’s stomach.
The wolf was played by Cobi Tappa, and in my eyes Tappa can do no wrong. His prior performances this year have included Orin Scrivello in UTA’s "Little Shop of Horrors" and Jimmy in the production "American Idiot: the Musical" by Express Yourself! Dance studio. As in all of these shows, Tappa’s comedic timing and confident air were delightful additions to "Into the Woods" and made the wolf character a memorable one.
The artistic staff behind this production deserves recognition for impressive sound and visuals throughout the performance. It was clear that the experienced bunch didn’t miss a thing, as the sound cues were on point and visual effects heightened the already magnificent staging and scenery.
Within live performances, there is always a chance that something may go wrong, but this show seemed to be nearly wrinkle-free. The witch was extended mid-air multiple times without issue thanks to fly rail supervisor Tim Ross, the props were promptly and smoothly set between scenes thanks to the deck crew and the orchestra seemed to hit every note under the direction of Chad Hutchinson.
There is very little negative to say about "Into the Woods." The University Theatre, University Opera and Wisconsin Union Theatre did this classic musical comedy justice with its selection of an outstanding cast and meticulous crew. This show is worth the watch while it’s still playing.
Emma Hellmer is our theater columnist. To read more of her work, click here.