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Opening night for Raleigh Little Theatre’s teen conservatory's Into the Woods was suitably rainy and mysterious for this dark, yet whimsical, romp through Stephen Sondheim’s exciting musical score. Nineteen acting students tackled the twenty-three roles with passion and exuberance, as well as an astounding amount of professionalism. Similarly, the ten technical theatre students created, dressed, and lit the stage – as well as assisted with costumes, props, and running the show in general – with the highest levels of maturity. Under the direction of Meredyth Pederson Cooper, and with superstar musician Shane W. Dittmar providing all of the music from one single keyboard, from memory as he is legally blind, this cast made magic happen.
Co-Narrators Colton Hartzheim and Lexi Willbrand introduced the story as semi-omniscient observers, dipping in and out of the action as needed for both humor and convenience, serving as minor characters as well as counselors to the main characters. The main acting leads, Baker (Spencer Giles), Baker’s Wife (Eden Bartholomew), and the Witch (Monique Fogg) were charismatic and entertaining, while delivering a massive amount of quick and tongue-twisting lines with great finesse, especially in "Act One Prologue" and "Maybe They’re Magic." There was a wonderful interplay between the children and adult storylines of the show, regardless of the relatively close ages between the majority of actors; Little Red (Brynna Rosenberg), Jack (Will Taylor), and Milky White (Emily Freer) were delightfully expressive, petulant when necessary, but generally very earnest and lovable characters.
All of the players did a great job of illustrating the action that does not actually take place on stage in this show, like off-stage giants, inferred deaths, and transformations. Sondheim is an expert at letting the imagination run wild, especially with Into the Woods and the audience’s expectations of these well-known characters’ stories. He toys with them; treats them with an interesting mixture of fantasy and gritty, real-life problems; and flings them together to see what will happen. The result is a twisting, turning path of make-believe that imparts many varied lessons, and allows the audience as much as the cast to connect and draw their own conclusions.
Double-threats Bartholomew and Fogg left especially large emotional impressions in their respective solos. While the blocking and choreography tended to be minimal in the second act and energy often lagged after the "happily ever afters," these two ladies were so enchanting as to fill the space around them and bring everyone back to life. Bartholomew as Baker’s Wife displayed an amazing vocal and emotional range in her character’s long and winding development, from severe wife to impassioned lover to nurturing mother. Her "Moments in the Woods" was sparkling with a complicated cocktail of emotions as she grappled with her journey and came to terms with herself as a woman. Fogg as the Witch belted passionately as she revealed more and more of her humanity over the course of the show. A few of the notes were out of her range, as Sondheim’s works are notoriously difficult to sing, but she pushed through without ever breaking character, rendering any pitchiness almost even more effective than perfection would have been. Her emotional output in "Witch’s Lament," backed by Dittmar’s unsettling, rippling piano, was devastating, only topped by "Last Midnight: and her sinister singing to the Baker’s baby. The action pretty much stopped to focus on her and might benefit from a little more motion, but the effect was such that cast and audience were stunned into emotionally charged silence.
Other notable singers were Rapunzel (Emma Johnson), Cinderella (Sofia Alba), Rapunzel’s Prince (David Snee), and Cinderella’s Prince (Dane Swanser). Rapunzel, while a more supporting role, whizzes by occasionally with her signature operatic melody that, while funny in its repetitions and placement, was performed incredibly well. The princes – charming, if not sincere – performed the heroic male caricature "Agony" with a great amount of charisma and surprisingly intricate choreography, including sophisticated lifts and spins, with Swanser’s velvety baritone powering through and supporting Snee’s developing tenor. Alba’s Cinderella, powered by a Broadway-bound voice, was sweet yet strong, subtly bringing up some feminist struggles, but eventually becoming a hero in her own right.
Every cast member had multiple jobs on stage, whether it was helping turn the library-themed set into a variety of different configurations to represent cottages and forest groves, portraying multiple characters in quick succession, or providing supporting vocals and action. Nearly every cast member seemed to have a very stable understanding of his or her character’s personality and history – even if just portraying a bunch of flowers! – and could illustrate this through their walks, movements, and other stage business. These students are obviously very well trained, especially in acting, if not all in their singing, and are on their way to greatness. Only a few lines were not convincing or didn’t project enough, but the setting of single keyboard and unamplified actors felt natural and suitable for such strong voices.
Into the Woods continues through Sunday, August 5, with a cast and crew talkback on Sunday, July 29. These students do a phenomenal job at mounting such a difficult and complex show, and Raleigh Little Theatre is a nurturing, supportive, and educational place for them to shine.
For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.