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Stephen Sondheim is regaled as one of, if not the, greatest musical theatre composer of the past century. His work spanned a career of over 60 years, including staples of the American theatrical genre such as Sweeney Todd, Company, and of course, Into the Woods. Sondheim's passing in 2021 was a deep wound for the musical theatre community at large, with many considering it the end of an era for the genre. However, with great loss comes great change. Sondheim's shoes cannot be filled, but his legacy can continue to inspire and raise artists to new heights. Last night's production of Into the Woods at the Brevard Music Center confirmed that the future of musical theatre is as bright as the young artists who took the stage with the discipline, passion, and commitment of true professionals.
The village behind such a massive undertaking like the Summer Music Festival at BMC clearly feels a responsibility to create transformative experiences for their students. This is evident in the professional quality of the production. It was so heartwarming to see the effect that this culture of support and nurturing has had on these young students. They have been given the space to grow into creatives that feel empowered to move audiences, establishing an environment of wonderment and introspection. It was easy to recognize a community dedicated to excellence through the success of this production.
One way this dedication is visible is in the technical elements that support the onstage action. The picturesque proscenium frame rustically covered in trees and rugged branches immerses the audience into a real-life storybook, reminding one of pop-up illustrations that come to life through two-dimensional lighting tricks. The costumes for Into the Woods also offer an opportunity for the designer to showcase their skill through beautiful, intricately textured costumes. This production meets the mark with flying colors, displaying interesting color schemes while maintaining a cohesive visual effect throughout the performance. These elements created a provocative experience for the opening night audience, who was visibly engrossed in the onstage action. I am certain the students delighted in such an eager audience, as their performances not only proved their powerhouse capacity, but also their vigor.
In fact, it is difficult to name only one stellar performance in the cast as all the ensemble proved their abilities throughout the course of the night. However, the principal cast of characters took on a greatly complex, titan of a show with impressive energy. Because of the cast's musical prowess and larger-than-life personalities, the audience remained consistently humored and engaged. This consistency was well-established in the opening number of the show, in which the characters rapidly trade off introducing how their tales connect. The actors efficiently moved between worlds, never missing a beat vocally or emotionally. This excellence was maintained through the climax during "No One Is Alone," a number as vulnerable and genuine as you could want. The inspiring principal performers were supported by an equally strong ensemble, who maintained their ground alongside the leads. This grand achievement was in large part due to director Dean Anthony, who not only led his students to onstage success, but, to our delight, told the story alongside them as the Narrator.
This performance also owes much of its success to a magnificent orchestra. Fans of Sondheim know that executing his music with precision is no easy feat. And yet, this talented group of musicians powered through moments of harrowing excitement, playful humor, and other evocative movements with determination. A particularly memorable achievement occurred in "The Last Midnight" as the combined forces of the orchestra built effective tension, creating a strong foundation for the vocalists. Conductor Craig Kier's expertise shined as he led the orchestra to incredible heights, elevating the production to star status.
It is so encouraging to see excellent art created by talented youth and their knowledgeable, committed educators. Productions like this one give hope that the American musical theatre tradition will continue to amaze audiences in a way only theatre can for years to come. Cheers to the team behind Into the Woods at the Brevard Music Center for presenting a must-see production in Western North Carolina.