Encore Michigan

Flint Rep goes deep ‘Into The Woods’

Review December 10, 2019 Bridgette Redman

FLINT, Mich.–For its first musical of the season, Flint Repertory Theatre is returning to the first mastermind they performed last season, Stephen Sondheim, the guru of intricate lyrics and sage of sophisticated themes and plot lines.

Last year, their inaugural musical was Assassins. This year, its first musical is Into the Woods, book by James Lapine, music and lyrics by Sondheim, a show that tosses together various fairy tales and takes them places they’d never gone before. The first act features Jack and the Beanstalk, The Baker and His Wife, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Rapunzel (later Snow White and Sleeping Beauty get cameo mentions). The second act goes beyond the happily ever after and explores all the consequences of chasing one’s wishes.

Directed by the theater’s artistic director, Michael Lluberes, this production of Into the Woods instantly captivates the audience with Shane Cinal’s scenic design. The thrust stage is filled with floating ladders, hanging ropes and multi-leveled platforms. Everything else is bare and left to the imagination of the audience. Before the performance began, many in the audience were already murmuring about how this skeletal stage would be used and Lluberes did not disappoint with his clever blocking of the show.

Once the show begins, actors climbed up and down the stairs, the ladders and the ropes. Jack, played by Gage Webster, did quite a bit of fancy rope work all while singing in a clear, beautiful voice. The staging works wonderfully to keep the actors in the air, and allow for multiple groupings and stage pictures to take place at the same time and be always visible.

The staging also allows there to be complete focus on the actors and the stories they each tell. In a cast of 14, with five Equity actors, each one turns in an excellent performance, while committed to telling the same story–a testament to Lluberes’ crafty and original direction.

It begins with Rico Bruce Wade as the Narrator and “Mysterious Man.” Clad all in white and sitting cross-legged on the black stage, he made for a commanding figure. Wade is one of those actors who knows how to use every tool in the actor’s toolbox. He has a rich, velvety voice over which he has absolute control. He connects easily and intently with the others on stage…even as the detached narrator who is both inside and outside the story. Perhaps most impressive, though, is his physicality and the way he uses his body to tell the tale. Every move is calculated and purposeful, filled with motivation and designed to be visually interesting.

Emily Hadick is Cinderella, a sweet and practical young woman who is one of the few characters who never gives in to scheming. Her vocals are excellent, and she does an especially good job of inhabiting the princess at the point of her betrayal when she is wounded but resolute.

Jason Briggs and Victoria Huston-Elem are the Baker and His Wife (sorry, to only identify her in relationship to a man, but neither Lapine nor Sondheim gave her a name). They have a wonderful chemistry and both do an excellent job of showing both the tensions and teamwork of the couple as they work to fulfill their deepest wish. Huston-Elem does a great deal of acting with her face, and in the intimate theatre-in-the-round set up, that pays off. Briggs, too, is a very animated actor in this mash-up of children’s tales, exhibiting a terrific range of emotions that are experienced in every corner of the theeatre.

Webster, in addition to his rope work, manages to capture the simple-mindedness of Jack without reducing him to a caricature. Rather, he is a mostly kind boy who gets easily excited and incited. His deftness on the ropes, though, combined with his strong singing while doing it and acting, he is a unique triple threat.

Amanda Kuo’s Little Red Riding Hood also walked the line between innocent and slightly street-savvy at the beginning. What became interesting was how she responded to her encounter with the Wolf at Granny’s and how in subtle ways throughout the second act, she showed signs of the trauma she had suffered and how it had changed her. Her leans into tough teenager that can hold her own brings moments of laughter that were not out of place.

Elizabeth Jaffe (2019 Wilde Award winner for Best Lead Actress in a Musical) presents a different sort of witch than is often portrayed in this musical. She is more of a hedge witch than the evil one we normally see. Even with her powers, she is less scary and more just an amoral outsider whose only empathy was for her adopted (i.e., kidnapped) daughter. Jaffe’s vocals are extremely strong, and her embrace of this different sort of witch makes for a very original portrayal.

Several members of the ensemble doubled up roles, sometimes changing right on stage so that they were one character when faced in one direction and then after quickly pulling on a different costume piece and turning around were another.

The entire musical is tightly directed without any pause or dead space in the nearly three-hour show.

Just as the set was a skeleton created with just a few elements, Brandon R. McWilliams’ costume design shows similar restraint. Rather than going for a rainbow of colors, he chose a single palette of whites, grays and neutrals (with the exception of the red cape that Little Red Riding Hood wore, for obvious reasons). While he designed many clever pieces to help distinguish different characters, most of the choices are simple, with loose pants and long coats.

Since transitioning from Flint Childrent’s Theatre to Flint Repertory Theatre, the productions produced under Lluberes have been outstanding—taking singular approaches to classic shows, exploring little-known plays, creating new works and featuring stellar actors at the top of their craft.

This Into the Woods doesn’t bring a new interpretation or take a surprise route. Instead, it simply does everything with excellence—which makes it a wonderful experience no matter how many times you have or have not seen Into the Woods before.

David Kiley contributed

This review was updated since its original publication to reflect the input of a second reviewer.