Into the Woods
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by James Lapine
Presented by Studio Players
Through Nov. 17, 8 p.m., except Sundays, 3 p.m.
Studio Playhouse, 14 Alvin Place
By STEFANIE SEARS
For Montclair Local
No matter how old you are, everyone feels like a child hearing the phrase “Once upon a time.”
Director Ben Liebert makes that explicit, setting “Into the Woods,” the first production in Studio Players’ mainstage season of 2018-2019, in a library.
Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Into the Woods” is based on fairy tales.
While usually “Into the Woods” asks the question, “What happens after happily ever after?” Liebert’s version additionally asks, “What happened to the simpler times when we were kids, before life got complicated and our innocence was just a memory?”
As the audience enters, and the show begins, we see the grownups onstage revert back to their childlike selves.
Liebert’s concept for the show, which the actors know, is that it takes place in a children’s library on its final day before closing its doors for good. But when the play begins, thanks to the Narrator, who is represented by a librarian in this version and is played by Susan Holtz, they are immediately swept into the story of “Into the Woods.” She leads the story along by assigning different roles to these adults through the simple act of handing them a book. Essentially, it is childlike playtime for the adults to help themselves through their adult issues as they reenact the musical in the library setting.
All of the roles are played by adults, even those, like Little Red Riding Hood, that are sometimes played by child actors.
Liebert and the cast emphasized that no liberties have been taken with the musical. No characters have been changed or added. The concept is carried out through staying true to Sondheim and Lapine’s original script and music, but in a new intimate setting.
In “Into the Woods,” characters from fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault. They meet in the woods that are present in so many stories. Here is Rapunzel. There is a witch. Cinderella. A giant. Jack and a beanstalk. The musical debuted on Broadway in 1987, and was released as a major motion picture in 2014, starring Meryl Streep and James Corden.
One of the main characters is the baker’s wife: a childless woman who wants a family (which is how “Rapunzel” begins).
Lauren Berkman, who plays the Baker’s Wife, said she appreciates how the library setting makes people more aware of where they are and what they are doing.
“As adults, and especially in today’s day and age even kids now, we would get so easily distracted. We’re spending most of our time in front of screens and we’re not really aware of what’s in front of us and we miss so much,” she said.
“All these people [in the show’ get stuck in this library and they’re aware. They start to notice things that they didn’t notice before, and that’s where the magic is born.”
Building a season
It is rare for Studio Players to produce a musical: their last one was “Spring Awakening” in 2014. Wanting to resume producing musicals, they refer to this season as a rebuilding year, one that will rebuild the theater’s image as one that takes on challenges with a variety of offerings. Inspired by the success of last season’s final Mainstage production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “Appropriate,” a gritty family drama, they realized that they wanted to a rounded season.
“We wanted a musical, and we wanted a gritty modern drama, and we wanted something that celebrates the human spirit, and we wanted an old chestnut, and then maybe next season or two seasons from here, you might see something Shakespearean,” said Season Planning Committee member and Marketing Director Michael Smith-Gallo.
Smith-Gallo also performs in the musical, playing Cinderella’s Prince, Cinderella’s stepsister Florinda, and The Wolf.
Part of that means bringing in some new talent.
Liebert has both Broadway and Off-Broadway credentials, particularly appearing as Boq, a Munchkin man who is infatuated with Glinda, in “Wicked” on Broadway. Eventually, Boq turns into the Tin Woodman.
“In terms of my process of getting ready, I visited a lot of libraries,” Liebert, said. “There’s nothing like it. Sitting at home on your Kindle doesn’t replace just being in a quiet place. Libraries are a place of reverence because they carry with them this silence and this focus. It’s a public private space where you’re surrounded by people but you get to be completely absorbed and alone in a story. They’re special, especially for kids. There are rows and rows and rows and stacks and stacks of books and they can choose and it’s free. Kids get to really be kids in a library.”
Though the setting is a library, audiences will still see that “happily ever after” is not all it is cracked up to be and that taking responsibility for your actions is still important, Liebert said; they will experience the bittersweet yet hopeful retelling of fairy tales that Sondheim and Lapine envisioned. As a song says, children will listen, so adults need to be aware of their actions throughout their lives.