By Katie Pynes Anetsberger
Into The Woods, The Nebraska Communities Playhouse, April 28, 2023 7:30PM
I may be the last person in the theatre world to attend a performance of Into the Woods, but I’m grateful that this was my first experience. I think I’ve seen just about every cast member of this production in a major role about town in the last few years. Each and every character impressed and entertained me with their performance, and I can’t say enough about the high-caliber talent of this show. If you haven’t been patronizing our local theatres recently, you’re missing out–there are some Broadway worthy performers here in the Lincoln area!
I’ve been lucky to be a guest at the Nebraska Communities Playhouse already once this year, and I’m inspired by their model. Not only do they attract incredibly talented directors and performers, but they also involve the community at large, and the joy and excitement of this endeavor is readily apparent. They also have opened a new NCP Bar & Lounge, which you can enjoy before the show or during intermission. If you haven’t taken the short drive south to Hickman, I strongly encourage you to do so this season.
Into the Woods is a Stephen Sondheim musical. Sondheim, a prolific and versatile composer, wrote lyrics for such musical dramas as West Side Story, and both music and lyrics for perhaps his most famous work, Sweeney Todd. While not as dark as Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods does echo some of those macabre elements, but with more comedy.
The curtains open onto a beautiful and effective set which transitions seamlessly between scenes. I am always impressed by set design, in conjunction with lighting and costumes which immerse, but do not distract, and all of these things were done extremely well.
The Narrator (Christian Cardona), with an excellent chorus gathered around his ‘fairy-tale book,’ sets the tone for the first act. I’ve seen Christian onstage many times, and his versatility as an actor is notable, especially since a few moments later, he also plays the wolf of Little Red Ridinghood (Anna Kay Hageman). Many timeless characters are introduced in the first song: Cinderella (Jacquelyn VonAschwege) and her family, Rapunzel (Claire Wilkinson) and the Witch (Laura Lynn Horst), Jack of the beanstalk (Noah Trumble) and his mother (Lisa Steiner) among others, and we begin to see their stories play out, with all the grisly details from the original Grimm stories.
A theme throughout, is ordinary words have a magic and a power of their own. In a sense, words, or ‘wishes’ as noted in this play, can take on a life of their own for better…and more importantly perhaps, for worse. The opening song has each group of characters wishing desperately for a thing they do not have, and their words are very telling: “I wish/more than anything/more than life.” This idea of wishing for something more than life itself is challenged and played all the way out with some characters getting what they ‘wished’ for, but in return losing their life.
The central wish of the story is the Baker and the Baker’s Wife’s desire to have a child. This is the second time I’ve witnessed Lauren Silverman Durban (The Baker’s Wife) baking on stage this year (she played an excellent Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd this winter) and I’m happy to report that in this bakery, there was not a meat pie to be seen. Both she and the Baker, played by Michael Trutna, really make the show the success that it is. Longing for a child, the couple discover from the Witch next door that there is a curse upon them, and that their wish could be fulfilled, if only they find four items: a cow as white as snow, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold. While seemingly innocuous, the search for these items leads them farther away from contentment–and each other, and ‘into the woods.’ You can really see their transformation begin when they deceive Jack (Noah Trumble) by trading beans in order to get the cow, and declare comically “the ends justify the beans.”
The characters, who all enter the woods throughout the story to further their ‘wishes’ more or less, meet with trouble in the end. The woods, which might be likened to the trials we all inevitably encounter throughout life, are not always bad, but when sought after, meddled with or muddied can lead into darkness. Deceit, thievery, adultery, and ultimately death are all consequences of going ‘into the woods’ of their own volition.
The first act ends on a ‘happy’ note, with most receiving their just deserts, and happily ever afters, and I would have been happy to just leave it all there. But Sondheim challenges this with his macabre second act, in which all of the choices in the first act have real (fairy-tale) life repercussions.
The thesis we were comically presented in the first act of, ‘the ends justify the beans’ is challenged to the utmost and ultimately collapses in on itself. Although all of the wishes have been granted, no character actually is contented and we quickly find out there are consequences for the choices that were made. This begs the question, what should we wish for, more than life, more than anything? Well, life itself should be the ultimate wish–because without it, we can’t have anything else. I think this is the heart of Sondheim’s message, that life in whatever form it takes for us, is the greatest gift of all.
Lest you think this entire play is dark, there were many comedic moments, especially in the first act. Connor Dudley’s performance as Milky White the cow, with his amazing puppet, may win my vote for best-of-show. I’m not sure how the other cast members kept straight faces, but I was laughing loudly throughout. More great points of comedy came from the Princes played by Sam Ninegar and Jacob Vanderford, who were delightfully ridiculous characters. Their duet, ‘Agony’ as well as the reprisal, were absolutely hilarious. Laura Lynn Horst was another favorite for comedy as the witch, especially when she rapped in the first act.
Great things are happening out at NCP, and it is well worth your time to be a part of it!
I always want to know the answer to the question: can I take my kids? And as the chorus sings in the last song “careful the tale you tell/children will listen.” I would recommend 10+ for my own family, with parental guidance as there are moments of dark comedy, death, violence, etc.
If you go: Into the Woods will perform in the Nebraska Communities Playhouse, 217 Locust Street, Hickman, NE, April 29 & May 4, 5, 6, at 7:30PM and April 30 & May 7 at 2:00PM. Tickets may be purchased at neplayhouse.com/.
Katie Pynes Anetsberger is an avid reader, aspiring writer, amateur artist and mother of three magical humans. A staunch supporter of the arts, she firmly believes, in the words of Dostoevsky “The world will be saved by beauty.”
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