When Into the Woods stormed into Broadway, telling everyone of the misadventures of their favorite fairy tale characters it claimed 10 Tony and 13 Drama Desk Nominations. This story of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, and other childhood memories only won 3 Tony's and 4 Drama Desk awards, but it was forever sealed into the hearts and minds of the audience as a darling. Because of this, almost every theatre ranging from Junior High to Broadway to West End has repeated this magical show (5 Revivals.) Camarillo Skyway Playhouse is in the middle of their own production of this Sondheim classic, running through November 18th.
CSP's production is a far cry from the Burton-esque Disney film (directed by Rob Marshall) and harkens back to a more whimsical view of these fairy tales. Director Michael J. McGraw, founder of the all-youth acting troupe Stage Door Players, taps into the childlike wonder of imagination with a colorful, albeit minimalistic set and an energetic cast to take the audience on their journey into the woods. Driven by a youthful and exuberant Narrator (Wesley Umali) we are introduced to the Baker (Ken Patton), Jack (Logan Milburn), Cinderella (Sara Marie Calvey) and Little Red (Michelle Harris) with a flare of Umali's rambunctious, plucky attitude. I do not wish to harp on the story too much. I assume most of the readers have heard or seen versions of these tales, if not one of the many iterations of the story before, I would like to focus on the standouts of Camarillo Skyway's cast; in no particular order.
Jack's mother, played by Sindy McKay was an instant fan favorite. McKay's demeanor and voice were reminiscent of another Sondheim superstar, Angela Lansbury, as she commanded the stage. Vocally, her timbre and tone were perfectly in sync with what I think of when I imagine a Sondheim Soundtrack. Jack's Mother also got the ovation of the night with her response to the Baker's wife saying she has no children with "That's okay, too." In that moment of comedy and compassion the audience erupted with enthusiastic ovation and laughs. It was a great message delivered with just the right touch.
Speaking of the Baker's wife, actress Genevieve Levin was a true lynchpin of the cast. Her stoic pride, her powerful singing voice, spot on comedic timing and ability to lose herself in a moment "in the woods" brought a steady pace and feeling of direction to the entire production. Whenever the show seemed to wander or get turned around, like the character of the Baker stumbling through the forest, she was there to offer just what was needed to put the audience at ease and make us feel like we were back on track.
Another Vocal standout was Rapunzel (Samantha Winters) who's soprano arias did Sondheim proud as her voice danced like tiny birds on strings. Rapunzel's character is always a difficult foray into emotions which was navigated well by Winters. In fact, there was a unique directorial choice pairing Umali's empathic narrator in a moment with a tortured Rapunzel comforted by the Witch. Again, sending a powerful message to the audience about human connection and caring for your fellow people.
The Witch, played by Mary Grace Zehnpfenning, was another driving force of the show. Hooded in her shawl for the first act, she relied on physicality and powerful vocals. In the second act she commands the stage and carrys the show with the powerful "Last Midnight" balad. One of the most demanding parts in the show, made famous by the incomparable Bernadette Peters, Zehnpfenning handled the part with style, grace, and power.
Of course, we cannot forget everyone's favorite part of the show, "Agony." Where two princes lament over their loves. The song is pure comedic gold and highlights James Lapine's lyrical ability. Colin Grumney and π offer hilarity and amusement as the pleather pantsed princes pining over the previously previewed princesses. In fact as soon as I saw π as the prince I thought "Oh, I can't wait for Agony." π who also played the Wolf gleefully embraced the smarmy, sleazy aspects of "Hello Little Girl" to the fantastic Michelle Harris as Little Red- who's bouncy, crisp vocals and pugnacious charm were pure delight.
Sara Marie Calvey's Cinderella was executed flawlessly, with believably painful pratfalls, beautiful singing and spot on harmonies. And last but not least young Lillian Lippold as Milky White was a true star, ever present, committed and focused as Jack's faithful friend. She earned a rousing cheer herself near the end of the first act.
The first act of the show ends on a very happy note, and if you have children present, maybe you should take them home after that. This is where the Junior production ends. The second act is a bit heavier and morose, with bittersweet punctuations. The costuming by Laura Comstock complemented the simple scenery with understated nuances that nodded to themes in the show. The narrator wears a boy scout shirt as he “navigated” the story, and the similar scout like outfit Little Red wears as she say “Granny is right just BE PREPARED” (the scout’s motto.) And of course, when tackling Sondheim and Lapine, a shepard is needed to guide the flock through the dark and ululating landscape of the music, done masterfully by David Watkins, who’s ear for harmonies and detail are on full display in the large group numbers that are tongue-twistingly terrific.
Camarillo Skyway's production of Into the Woods was a comedic, fun, romp through the untold stories of your favorite fairy tales. Told through a child's imagination, with some rough edges, poignant messages, and interesting subtle nods at storytelling. The cast and crew combined to make this show an eventful, memorable, sweet production. There's also a touch of symbolism and social commentary for those who look for it. CSP has shown that this story not only holds up after 30 years but can still be a fantastic journey that leaves you feeling hopeful, and reminds you that no one is alone.
Running at Camarillo Skyway Playhouse, 330 Skyway Dr, Camarillo, CA 93010