Stephen Sondheim is synonymous with seminal—his works are comfortingly classic, but stimulating when reinvented aesthetically. The Columbia Musical Theatre Society’s high-concept production of “Into the Woods” juxtaposed the classical and the contemporary, with 12 actors playing over 20 fairytale roles in modern dress while still producing skillful takes on standards like “No One is Alone.”
CMTS’ presentation of “Into the Woods,” the directorial debut of Anna Moskowitz, BC ’19, was staged in the Diana Center’s Glicker-Milstein Theatre this weekend.
The musical weaves together the stories of renowned fairytale figures, with an overarching tale featuring a baker and his wife (played by Jacob Iglitzin, CC ’19, and Emma Smith, BC ’19), desperate to have a child. When a witch (Eloise Bagnara, a Barnard exchange student from Australia) appears on their doorstep, she describes items they must acquire to reverse their childless curse: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold. Where this musical holds its distinction as a “classic” is through its shift in the second-half, when the story moves from the bright charm of the traditional fairytale narrative to one laced with darker, emotional connotations.
As “Into the Woods” is a musical repeatedly performed in an amateur setting, director Moskowitz worked for this production to be a disparate take from those of the past.
“My goal going into [it] was, I do not want it to be your high school’s production of ‘Into the Woods,’” Moskowitz said. “I don’t want it to feel stale at all. …We went for an aesthetically innovative production.”
Visually, this aim was certainly met—the scenery was best interpreted as scrappy, with chirping birds reimagined as cloth fragments dangling from twigs, Rapunzel’s tower a metal mobile staircase, and the “cow as white as milk,” aptly named Milky White, concocted from some white piping and metal mesh on rolling wheels. These choices, though certainly inventive, seemed humorously sparse alongside the grandiose nature of the musical performance, dislocated from its typical proscenium stage setting to a much smaller black box.
However, alongside withdrawn scenery and an intimate locale, the prowess of the actors was the focal point, especially through the choices of music director Louisa Tambunan, BC ’18. India Beer, BC ’20, gave a heartfelt performance as Cinderella, Erin Hilgartner, CC ’21, as Red Riding Hood was delightfully quirky and tenacious, especially during “I Know Things Now,” and Iglitzen and Smith as the baker and his wife had convincing, energized chemistry as dual focal points of the story. Bagnara, as the witch, gave a masterful performance of the famed number “Children Will Listen,” which was, in a word, bewitching.
But this story is not simply a “walk in the woods,” as its title may suggest: The first act, which concluded in a sort of happily ever after, reopens after intermission to a darker, giant-ravaged scene.
“[The musical asks] questions in the second act about how we move on after a loss, and what makes a parent and child relationship valid, and a woman’s role in the household,” said Moskowitz. “All these big, universal, timeless questions especially are effective.”
And the emotionality of these final scenes was especially enduring—despite the alienating, strewn-about clutter and costumes, the touching performances gave insight beyond fantastical tales of witches, princes, and giants; they showed the importance of family, heart, and the fact that no one, really, is ever alone.