INTO THE WOODS – Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; Book by James LaPine; Directed by Michal McDowell; Musical Direction by Graham Anduri; Choreography by Rachael Lessard; Conducted by Patrick Lee. Produced by Ovation West Performing Arts (presented at Center Stage, 27608 Fireweed Drive, Evergreen) through October 8. Tickets available at 303/674-4002 or 

A few of the things I like about community theatre: 

  1. They have untold nerve. They don’t do necessarily easy shows. No TIME OUT FOR GINGER or EVERYONE LOVES OPAL for them. Sometimes they pull up their big girl panties and take on Sondheim. By doing so, they elevate the work of the company, teach the young members in the company the value of being prepared in work and life (through rehearsals), the discipline of performance, the building of a community in solving mutual problems, the confidence of knowing well your part of the whole, and the joy of performing. The same communal problem solving keeps the older members of the cast connected and energetic, putting off senility to yet another day. The combination of older and younger working on a mutual project is enriching for both. And it’s fun. 
  1. Community theatre gives everyone a chance to participate no matter your talent or skill level. If you want to get up on stage, there’s generally parts that you can fill whether for the first time or the fiftieth time. Every once and awhile, someone gets brave for the first time, steps into that spotlight and reveals an unexpected talent only previously hinted at in the privacy of their own bedroom. A shower singer has a real microphone strapped to their head and discovers a new confidence. The dancer who is good at Zumba finds she’s also good at ensemble dancing. The boy too shy to talk in class suddenly finds he likes making people laugh. If you choose not to take a place in front of the spotlight, someone always needs to be behind the spotlight. Any talent you have can be used by a creative theatre company. You can paint, build, sew, electify, play an instrument, hang posters, sell ads, bake concessions, move things into place for those who have chosen to be on stage – there is a place for everyone. 
  1. It’s fun. No matter the show – no matter the place. Getting a group of like minded people together to work on a mutual project is just downright fun. Especially when it is designed to entertain your family, friends and community. There is no joy more concrete than making your own cast members laugh at your funny lines. The exultation of getting through a whole rehearsal for the first time not having to ask for lines. The thrill of getting your costumes and props for the first time. Of watching the set come together – all for you. And then, the lights going up on the first (and all other) performances knowing you have the bravery and moxie to be up there in the first place. 

That’s what I witnessed in watching this performance of INTO THE WOODS. Until you read the program, it is generally not obvious who is a first time performer or a seasoned thespian. In this particular case, it was a bunch of people doing their best to tell Sondheim’s story together. They had solved the problems of working in a small stage, of tackling extremely difficult music and conquering it, of getting everything off and on stage efficiently, of “putting it together.” And they were having fun. 

The extremely seasoned Justin Johnson starts the show off as the Narrator by introducing the players in the story. His easy relaxed style puts the audience at ease and moves us into the fairy tale world we are going to inhabit for the next couple of hours. We meet The Baker (Brandon Lopez) and his Wife (Penina Eisenberg) who are willing to go to extreme measures to have a baby. The Witch (Dani Soibelman) shows up and tells them why they are having so much trouble with the baby thing – she has cursed the Baker’s father and the curse has passed to him. Bummer! What to do? They must collect four items for her. Enter Jack (of beanstalk fame – Zane Larson) with one of the items – a cow as white as milk. But getting and keeping the cow proves problematic.  

Next we meet Little Red Riding Hood (Bridget Brown) who has the second item – a cape as red as blood. She too is loath to give up her cape until Jack saves her from the Wolf. Then she’s willing to share. The two reluctant Princesses – the disillusioned Cinderella (Anna Piper) and kidnapped Rapunzel (Rebecca Nelson) – deliver the last two items – a slipper as pure as gold and hair as yellow as corn. Happy ending – right?! Not really. 

Sondheim slips in life lessons, human nature foibles and pathways to personal happy endings (“No One is Alone”) all along the way. I’ve seen this show at least a dozen times and there are new lessons to learn each time you observe the wondrous flow of music and lyrics and the genius of the story. You will be missed, Mr. Sondheim. It must be such a revelation for cast members to do this show night after night and find something new in each performance. 

The talented cast members I’ve named and the fifteen unnamed performers bring this story to marvelous life. I defy you to identify newcomers as opposed to oldtimers without looking at the program. Each contribution to the performance was given whole-heartedly with equal dedication.  Director Michal McDowell solved the problem of multiple locations which needed to be moved into and out of quickly by creating six wood nymphs to watch the excitement in the woods and jump into action to move trees and furniture when needed. A clever solution to what could have been a deal breaker for this show for this theatre. 

I love going up to Evergreen to see performances and then driving back into Denver humming the music and pondering the performances. I challenge my Denver readers to do the same. You won’t be disappointed. 

A WOW factor of 8.5!! 

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