Into the Woods – Valley Youth Theatre, Herberger Center, Phoenix

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This past weekend saw the opening of Valley Youth Theatre’s final production of its current season, and what a slam-bang way to bring things to an end, just ahead of the summer break.  Into the Woods is the 34th VYT production at Herberger Center’s Main Stage away from its smaller home base.  For these young and talented entertainers, the thrill of performing on a professional level at the Herberger can only be equaled by the thrill of the audience watching them.  Like several large scale VYT productions before it, Into the Woods is, to say the least, an audacious project to attempt, yet it not only rises to the occasion, there are moments when the production actually surpasses expectation.  This is great musical theatre.

Director Bobb Cooper gave himself a challenge.  Instead of producing one of the shortened versions of Stephen Sondheim’s difficult musical – there are a few restructured versions available, some even concluding at the upbeat Intermission – surprisingly, VYT has delivered the full, original Broadway production.  At the Herberger there’s no shying away from the adult-themed darkness of the second half, it’s all there.  The biggest difference is that many of the roles doubled on Broadway – the Narrator also played the Mystery Man, Cinderella’s Prince also played the Wolf, etc. – here there’s currently a pool of available talent that affords VYT the luxury of having one player for every role.  It’s a huge production.

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For the unfamiliar, or for those who skipped the Hollywood big screen adaptation this past Christmas, Into the Woods is a musical with two very distinct halves.  The first is a bright and cheery look at three interlocking Grimm’s fairy tales where characters from famous fantasies make their wishes and continually bump into each other on their journey through the woods, emerging at the other end just before the intermission with their individual happy ever afters.  But what happens after that happy ever after?  The second half explores the next stage; the effects of decisions made, the consequences of actions taken.  For instance, it’s one thing for Jack to climb above the clouds, steal the giant’s gold, then chop the beanstalk, killing the pursuing giant, but what would happen if the giant’s wife followed, looking for revenge?  The lessons learned are not easy, neither is the more realistic prospect of a not quite so happy ever after.  But life goes on and realities must be faced; just be careful what you pass on to your children; they’re listening.

What becomes immediately obvious with this fast-paced, colorful production is just how accomplished the voices of the varied cast truly are.  The musical plunges its players into a demanding and complicated opening number from the moment its narrator (Alex Partida) walks on and declares, “Once upon a time… “   Each fairy tale character from Cinderella to Jack and the Beanstalk – plus two new characters invented for the musical; the baker and his wife – has their wish for a different life.  Trained voices soar delivering complicated musical passages that are always in danger of falling apart when performed outside of a professional forum, yet here this more than able cast not only rises to the challenge, the concern that a complicated show with such a demanding book and score could ever be pulled off by under eighteens is completely dispelled.  By the conclusion of the opening number where the cast turn to the audience declaring they’ll all be “Home before dark,” you may find yourself wanting to leap to your feet for an early standing-o.

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Technically, the show has much that deserves praise, from Mike Eddy’s atmospheric lighting, Karol Cooper’s richly detailed costumes to the eye-catching, well designed set from 3D Theatricals that fills the Herberger stage as characters make their way through the denseness of the woods, all supported by an outstanding and surprisingly large orchestra under Mark Fearey’s direction.  The show’s musical style is not to present songs as showstoppers but rather to use them as a way of expressing emotions, thoughts and feelings that can’t always be as effective in dialog. Cut a song and the motivation of a character can be lost.

Once again, with such a large VYT cast and such an abundance of musical talent involved, it’s almost unfair to single out individual performances, yet, in a production such as this, there will always be those outstanding moments that demand acknowledgment.  Highlights include all ensemble numbers – the prologues and the finales of both halves are superior – plus there’s Little Red Riding Hood’s awakening I Know Things Now (performed by a terrific Alex Kirby, full of great promise), Jack’s Giants in the Sky (Sam Primack as reliably professional as ever) the Witch’s haunting Stay With Me and the angry Last Midnight (the equally professional Carly Makani Copp) and Cinderella’s On the Steps of the Palace (Tatum Dial whose voice is such a delight, you may find yourself wishing for another solo).

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There’s also good comedy that helps offset some of the more serious aspects of the second half.  Spencer Claus’ spats-wearing Steward wrings as much potential humor as he can while Ally Lansdowne’s spirited and very funny turn as the Baker’s Wife nicely illustrates what an accomplished comedic performer she can be without overplaying her hand.

Perhaps the only questionable moment where the production stumbled was during the demise of the giant’s wife near the show’s conclusion.  Those already familiar with the piece will know what happened – or, at least, they’ll know what was supposed to happen – but new audience members may find themselves scratching their heads.  Maybe it was an opening night problem of timing when nerves run high, but having the stage plunge to darkness and then have the characters pick up the singing before we hear the bang-crash of a falling giant was muddied.

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But compared to the rest of the show, the puzzling and somewhat murky effect was merely a hiccup, one that can easily be reworked for the rest of the run.  See Into the Woods for a few reasons: 1)  Some of the cast are reaching that age cap for VYT eligibility, meaning that certain players who are fun to watch will soon be too old to be seen on this forum again – catch them while you can; 2) the singing; and 3) perhaps the best and simplest reason of all; it’s really a great show.

Photos courtesy GAPMar.com

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For more regarding times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the VYT website.

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