The Muhlenberg Department of Theatre and Dance premiered its newest mainstage production, the beloved Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods, in the Empie Theatre this past weekend. The incredible amount of hard work and dedication shown by members of the cast and crew was a testament to the artists’ passion for creating stories that matter, and resulted in Muhlenberg community members coming together to weave a brilliant, fantastical tale.
The musical follows the parallel stories of Grimm fairytale characters such as Cinderella, a Baker and his Wife, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack from Jack and the Beanstalk. After a witch shows them the ingredients necessary to remove a curse of infidelity that has been plaguing them, the Baker and his Wife enter a deep, dark forest and encounter the other characters in a wild hunt for their future.
The show was directed by Theatre & Dance professor Beth Schachter, who placed emphasis on the contemporary magic behind her vision, which resulted in a modern twist on a heartfelt classic. “This production has the benefit of brilliant designs and amazing execution by all those staff and students who created the set, lights, costumes, and sound components of the project,” says Schachter. “Gertjan Houben and Bryce Cutler, the lighting and set designers in particular, collaborated to envision a physical world in which the actors can actually run from scene to scene generating great urgency and occasionally terrific comedy in this show of quests, surprise encounters and beautiful images of characters grief-stricken with losses.”
The actors in this show delivered a melting pot with their performances, with each actor providing an honest, comedic and serious approach to their individual character. Extraordinarily talented students created an atmosphere of dynamic realism within this fairytale world, and used these three principles associated with the behaviors of real-life people to give the well-known fairytale characters starkly human qualities.
One of the most unique and interesting additions to the production was it’s changing digital background. The image of a dark forest would very subtly change between scenes in order to signify the characters existing in different parts of the forest at different times of day. As with the rest of the show’s moving parts, the transitions between scenes were unbelievably seamless and seemed painstakingly well-thought-out, with this aspect taking that to a whole new level.
Since there were far fewer traditional blackouts than most classic stage productions tend to have, the scenes had to change very quickly as more characters darted in and out. As the audience’s eyes were drawn to the commotion of the actors, the opportune moment would arise and the scene would brilliantly and ever-so-slightly change so that the atmosphere reflected the new mood of the scene about to take place. For example, the forest was significantly more ominous in appearance while the wolf was about to confront Little Red Riding Hood than when Jack and the Baker were pictured in conversation with no threat in sight, which is ultimately a key factor in making the show come together so fluidly, and something that may not even occur to some audience members.
Schachter goes on to explain that even beyond the portions of the show that are visible, there is an intricate clockwork of theatrical mechanisms in play to bring Sondheim’s dark fairytale world to life. “I would like to add that the tremendous work going on — invisibly — backstage, upstairs with the make-up and wig and costume folks, as well as all those making the complex sound balance and cues work with our conductor, Ed Bara, and the orchestra, and the brilliant Stage Managing team are all indispensable to making this magical piece of theatre happen,” said Schachter.
“It’s pretty hard for folks who have not worked on a live piece of theatre to understand just how many hours and how much energy it takes to create what appears to be a seamless event unfolding for audiences — and I want everyone who enjoys the show to know there is a huge community of people bringing them the wonderful shared moments that are live performance,” she continued.
In speaking to those involved in the backstage workings of the production, it became clear that the experience gained from taking part in this hauntingly beautiful project left a lasting impression on students, whether veterans or newbies to the stage crew scene. Brandon Horyczun ‘23, who operated one of the moving set pieces during the show, said, “Although it was my first time in stage crew for a show, it was genuinely a lot of fun, and I learned so many valuable lessons through the experience that I never would have picked up otherwise…Once you take on a massive project like Into the Woods, it makes you feel like you’re part of something really special.”
Several audience members, including Zach Montenegro ‘23, agreed with this notion of Schachter’s Into the Woods leaving a lasting impact on them. “Into the Woods — It’s something that so many theatre folks grew up with, and I always have an impression of what it will be like based on what I’ve seen in the past…but this show took everything I knew and threw a totally new spin on it. Honestly, I left the theatre thinking, and that’s the best kind of show, in my opinion: when you’re still engaged with the subject matter even once you’ve left the auditorium,” said Montenegro.
All in all, Into the Woods at Muhlenberg is something unique and thought-provoking, and ultimately something to definitely try to see this coming weekend. “My take on this classic story?” says Schachter, “It’s been such a great adventure for our entire company to explore how very contemporary and complex these character relationships are — and the fantastic combination of gorgeous songs, slapstick humor and truly sad moments keeps on revealing new meaning as audiences respond.”
This production really speaks to a common theme emerging within the Muhlenberg Theatre and Dance department: creating work that inspires, and takes the experience of putting on a staged production to the next level, and furthermore, using theatre as a module to inspire critical thinking and to give artistic passion a context based in societal modernity.
You still have opportunities to become enchanted with this production as the show’s run ends Sunday, Nov. 3.