A. Charis Conwell
West Potomac High School
Once upon a time, a poor baker and his wife had only one wish: to have a child. A witch, malevolent and hideous, revealed to them that the root of their troubles was a curse, which must be stopped in four midnights. What follows is a perilous and thought-provoking journey into a land of utter fantasy, where princes, princesses, wolves, spirits, and every fairy-tale somebody roams on a quest of their own--in the woods.
The Madeira School ambitiously tackled Stephen Sondheim’s iconic Into the Woods and pulled off a production that was simultaneously classic and refreshingly re-imagined.
From the beginning, audiences found themselves whisked away into the storybooks of their childhood by stunningly cohesive tech. This was notably demonstrated in the expansive woods themselves, where massive trees made of storybooks set the scene. Exploding and flowing at their tops into a sea of pages, these trees played on both scenery and narrative themes, contributing to an atmosphere normally found at the professional level. Consistently, the set captured attention. Its many details seemed purposeful, not only providing an interesting backdrop for the characters to live out their lives, but adding depth to the story itself.
Another interesting aspect of the production, born of necessity rather than invention, was an all-female cast. Into the Woods, already a challenging show for a high-school company to take on, becomes considerably more difficult when half the cast has to portray a different gender. Madeira’s cast handled it beautifully. Notably, Zoe Crawley, in the role of Jack, lit up the stage with beautiful vocals and an easy and engaging presence--all without compromising the masculinity of her character.
To keep audiences involved in the fate of these characters, whose stories we have heard so many times, Into the Woods calls for natural chemistry between its actors--and the production delivered. From the Baker and the Baker’s Wife (Melissa Handel and Claire Pitzer, respectively) to Milky White (Alex Raposo) and Jack, the relationship between characters, be it a marriage falling apart or a boy and his cow, was always clearly defined and engaging. Keenan Parker, enchanting as Cinderella, played especially well against the down-to-earth honesty of Pitzer’s character.
Finally, every fairytale needs a good villain. Magana Ngaiza, as the Witch, created a character of contrasts. Evil while relatable, maternal while violent, humorous and tragic, Ngaiza’s Witch was strikingly chaotic, whipping the story into a frenzy and astonishing audiences with feats of vocal acrobatics. From the Witch’s entrance in Opening, until her arcane demise following Last Midnight, Ngaiza’s presence on stage fascinated and entertained the audience.
The story of Into the Woods and the secret to its success are wound together. A group of people, meeting with a common goal, can cooperate to create something that is worth striving for. We are each a character in each other's stories, and our actions have consequences. Without any one member of the cast, or aspect of the set, or any one of the people who worked to create this production, the show could not have brought Sondheim’s world so convincingly to life. As it stands, The Madeira School effectively transported its audience “into the woods."
Westfield High School
A gentle but ominous fog laps at the feet of the wishful yet battered fairytale characters. "You’re blossoming in the woods,” croons the wistful baker’s wife. Effervescent and impassioned, The Madeira School's production of "Into the Woods" showed its power to leave audiences feeling as if they too had emotionally blossomed.
Debuting in 1986 in San Diego, Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods garnered three Tony Awards. Productions have run intermittently since its opening, and it was made into a Disney movie. The plot intertwines Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault fairy tales in an unexpected setting and flips classic themes on their heads. The complex script brims with subtext. The core permeating the many storylines is that wishes come true, but not without a price.
Inherently an ensemble piece, "Into the Woods" demands cohesion and crisp timing from every cast member. Additionally, the score features intricate harmonies, difficult melodic progressions, and complicated rhythms. The Madeira cast took on the challenging score and the task of singing low parts with grace and dedication, despite being an all-girls school performing a show in which half of the roles are male.
The Baker's Wife (Claire Pitzer) brought constant and necessary realism, balancing normality and fantasy as she slipped into the supernatural world. This descent, as well as Pitzer's strong vocal range, were demonstrated in songs like "Any Moment," where she created a believable but mystical relationship with Cinderella's Prince. Vei Vei Thomas as the Prince channeled masculine charm and sleaze while tackling a song written for a baritone. She oozed confidence while seducing the Baker's Wife and dazzled and amused the audience every time she flashed her royal smile.
Juxtaposed with the down-to-earth Baker's Wife, Keenan Parker as the naive Cinderella carried some of the show's most emotional moments. She captured the earnest, somewhat bemused but hopeful princess by forging a strong connection with the audience. The inflection in her speaking voice demonstrated empathy and the skill of a seasoned actress. The sincerity in her starry-eyed gaze drove the theme of hope. Her passionate voice recalled the birds she often sang to; impeccable technical skill imbued songs like "On the Steps of the Palace," where Parker exhibited her powerful upper register and vibrato.
The fantasy of the set evoked tangible emotion, constructed with a motif of storybooks. Trees, rocks, and the roofs of houses were created with stacked books and floating papers. Pages danced delicately in the "wind" from the giant's footsteps, and the scrim was skillfully used to separate forest from village. Transitions were demanding and called for timing as crisp as the cast's, and the student crew delivered the fluidity the show requires.
After weaving among elusive greenery, one may find a glimmer of light. Likewise, newfound wisdom ensconced the villagers who traipsed across the Madeira stage. As grim as prospects might be, the lyrics resounded: "Someone is on your side, no one is alone." The Madeira School's production of "Into the Woods" bled genuine emotion and etched hope into the hearts of all who watched.