Into the Woods at Lakeshore Players

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Within the last two weeks I've seen two musicals, both by my favorite composer of all time, Stephen Sondheim. This past weekend I saw Into the Woods which just so happens to be one of my absolute favorite musicals of all time. To say I've had a good theatre month is an understatement. This time I got to see my first production by Lakeshore Players. Not only that, but it was also the inaugural production of their new performing arts space, the Hanifl Performing Arts Center in White Bear Lake. While I only saw the lobby and the actual performing stage.

Into the Woods dark fantasty and comedic musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by James LaPine. The musical combines multiple plots from the original Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault fairy tales. It includes a baker, his wife, Jack (from Jack and the Beanstalk), Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and a few more. All of their stories are tied together when a Baker and his wife are punished by the witch who lives next door. The Witch sets a curse on the two to have an infertile life (a punishment after the Baker's father stole magic beans from her years ago). She sends them on a quest to find four ingredients to lift the curse including a "cape as red as blood, a cow as white as a milk, hair as yellow as a corn and a slipper as pure as gold." As they travel through the forest they meet more fairy tale characters whom all have their own wishes. Soon several of them discover and explore the consequences of the magic words "I wish..." as well as finding out what comes next in "Happily ever after..."

The show itself has been pretty successful since opening on Broadway in 1987. The original Broadway production won several Tony awards including Best Score, Best Book, and Best Actress in a Musical (Joanna Gleason for her portrayal of The Baker's Wife) and in a year that was dominated by Andrew Lloys Webber's The Phantom of the Opera. The show has been produced many times including a US National Tour, a West End production, a tenth anniversary concert, a 2002 Broadway Revival (starring Vanessa Williams) and it was apart of the 2012 New York City Shakespeare in the Park series. In 2014 a Disney film adaptation was released starring Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, and many more.

The set is designed by Shy Iverson. It's a charming and innovative set where platforms are disguised as over sized story books. As the prologue begins, each book opens to reveal three of the most central characters homes, Jack, Cinderella and the Baker and his wife. . I sat in the front row on the right side so I was able to spot every detail of the stage and the set. The detail on each storybook is amazing and gave me plenty to look at and enjoy before the performance even started. Unfortunately due to where I was sitting, I was unable to see a large majority of the opening song's scene involving the Baker and his Wife due to Jack and Milky White's staging. 

The cast is pretty rock solid. I thoroughly enjoyed the sense of ensemble between all the actors. With a show that has a cast of this size, it really is crucial that everyone is in perfect sync with each other. The dancing and singing were superb by everyone however sometimes I felt the acting of some missed the mark. There are a lot of hidden gems of humor sprinkled through the script that I think a lot of the actors missed. 

Starting with some of the main characters, I want to start by highlighting Theresa Rotter who played the Baker's Wife. Rotter was simply divine as the Baker's Wife. I think she completely engulfed everything that the role asked for. She was caring, cunning and witty. Her performance was heightened even more anytime her husband, the Baker (played by Gabriel Gomez) was on stage with them. These two were pure magic together. Their on stage chemistry was incredible and their rendition of "It Takes Two" was so cute that it left me in a puddle in my seat. These two had it and owned it.

Next to Rotter playing the Baker's Wife, I could not stop laughing at Jessica Halverson who played Little Red. Little Red is such a unique character in this production because she goes through huge transformation in terms of character development that it's like night and day. Halverson plays Little Red with the perfect amount of childlike naiveness while also realizing she's more than just a child in this story. Little Red is forced to grow up quickly after the events that set up Act II. She's sharp, clever and hilarious. Certainly an actress that I'd see in a show just to see her perform again.

Alex Johnson is extremely charming playing the young and courageous Jack. His high tenor voice was a delight to listen to during his song "Giants in the Sky." Austin Lewis and Cody Olson play the two prince brothers (Rapunzel's and Cinderella's) and their voices meshed together beautifully during the song "Agony." These two characters are pretty fun to play, I was Rapunzel's Prince in a production once. Their constant one upping each other in a sibling rivalry is so hilarious that I felt they could have gone even further with it. The nature of their characters is that they are supposed to be charming and handsome but also ridiculous which makes it humorous.  

The final role and actress I want to highlight is Kara Taft who plays the Witch. Taft sings the role incredibly with ballads like "Stay with Me," which left me with goosebumps, and "Last Midnight" which also happens to be my favorite musical theater song...ever. However I felt there were some unexplored moments that Taft could have played up more. The Witch is a complicated character that really gives this production even more layers than it already has. Some argue she's the antagonist, but really is she? Is she the villain? During the song "Last Midnight" she sings to some of the other characters how they aren't good, or bad they are just simply nice while she isn't either but she's just right. She's level headed. She is the character willing to make a sacrifice to ensure they all stay alive in the end. It's really thrilling to look at the character in that way and makes you question sort of everything you think about the production in terms of "who is the villain?"

"I'm not good, I'm not nice, I'm just right. I'm the witch. You're the world."
- The Witch, Last Midnight

Overall this is a beast of a show. It's not a show that a theater can just pick up and do one year and Lakeshore Players took the challenge and nailed it. Into the Woods is a complex beast of a show from the layers of plot, amount of characters and how they fit into the story with each other along with the complicated lyrics and music by Sondheim. This was my first Lakeshore Players show and I can't wait to see more from them and what they do next.

Into the Woods plays at the new Hanifl Performing Arts Center by Lakeshore Players now through May 20. The production is recommended for ages 10 and up. Tickets range from $19-25. Tickets can be purchased at the link below.

*Photo Credit: Peter Brown.