“Into the Woods” is not the easiest musical to do well. It has a lot of characters, a lot of interwoven plot lines, and a lot of physical comedy. Stephen Sondheim’s melodies take many unexpected twists and turns, and his lyrics, crammed with witty wordplay, have to be delivered with precision.
The 1986 musical, which features a book by James Lapine in addition to Sondheim’s music, may be based on classic Grimm Brothers fairy tales. But it is not child’s play, by any means.
This is part of the reason I was so impressed by the production of it that is currently being staged by the Vanguard Theater Company at its new home in Montclair, which opened last year. I previously reviewed “Next to Normal” there, and liked it a lot. But “Next to Normal” featured a combination of veteran and young actors. The large cast of “Into the Woods” is made up entirely of teens and young adults from Vanguard’s Dream VTC training program, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.
But they, and the seven-piece offstage band, handled their parts with thorough professionalism, even with the scheduling and casting chaos created by the COVID spike. (The run was originally scheduled to begin earlier in January.)
I’m sure Sondheim, an ardent mentor of young artists throughout his life, would have approved. (The production wasn’t, at first, planned as a tribute to him, but took on that aspect when he died, in November, at the age of 91, after Vanguard’s preparations had already begun.)
It wasn’t just that the actors got their lines right and sang the right notes and smoothly moved around the stage. The production made such a strong impression because they really made the characters their own and projected a strong sense of personality, with standouts including Gabby Beredo as the musical’s spunky Little Red Ridinghood, Malcolm Green as its playfully ferocious Wolf, Marisa Budnick as the forcefully fussy mother of Jack (from “Jack and the Beanstalk”), Alyssa Tanti as a Cinderella who really stands up for herself, and Ella Fine as the Baker’s Wife, one of the least cartoonish characters in the musical and the one who ultimately represents its heart and soul.
Green was also very good as Cinderella’s Prince and, with Alexi Horne as Rapunzel’s Prince, formed a memorable comedic duo: Two vain bros who think of themselves as dashing royals but are really just a pair of goofy frat boys.
Audience members benefited from seeing the actors up close, much of the time. Set designer Eric Marchetta had the woods be represented by a catwalk that extended into the audience, at a right angle from the main stage, with audience members facing it on either side. At times, the actors were just a few feet away.
Some actors played two or more parts. Also, some roles are being split among two different actors on different days. (I have only mentioned the ones I saw, the night I went.)
As I said, there are a lot of moving parts here. The fact that it all went off without a hitch says a lot about the skill of director Janeece Freeman Clark (who is also Vanguard’s founding artistic director), and serves as an effective advertisement for the quality of the training in the Dream VTC program — and the skill of the aspiring actors who are participating in it.
The Vanguard Theater Company in Montclair will present “Into the Woods” through Jan. 23. Visit vanguardtheatercompany.org.
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