by Stephanie L. Carlin
On March 15th and 16th, the Berklee Performance Center ran a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods directed by Austin Welker and sponsored by the Berklee Musical Theatre Club. It featured a full orchestra, a large, descending staircase, and a large cast of Berklee and Boston Conservatory students singing to large crowds.
A little history before we get into this particular production. Into the Woods is a musical with distinct, memorable stories and one that intersects with all of them. The four stories are the classic fairytales of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Rapunzel,” and “Cinderella.” The fairytale that ties all of these stories together is the story of a baker and his wife who are trying to bear a child, and in order to do that, they need a spell from a witch. The witch needs ingredients from the characters of these fairytales: a white cow, a red cape, hair as yellow as corn, and a golden slipper. The show was first produced on Broadway in 1987, and has since had a plethora of celebrities in five main stage productions and two national tours. Former cast members include Bernadette Peters, Chip Zen, Vanessa Williams, Gisela, Donna Murphy, Judi Dench, Glenn Close, John McMartin, and Amy Adams.
At first, the show starts suspiciously campy and somewhat friendly to children, but it’s ultimately an adult show that comments on fairytales and how they shape our culture. In this production, the first act features the fairytales being told with this intersecting story line, while the second act examines the consequences of the first act. There’s death, betrayal and a sense of dread, wrapped up in a beautiful moral about how stories can change the course of the human condition in the song “Children Will Listen.”
Into the Woods has been interpreted in many ways from an epic almost to the scale of opera to stripped down versions, including productions in Central Park and a small Off-Broadway production with just a piano. So, how did Berklee do it?
Well, it seemed to be a combination of both. Austin Welker, the director of Into the Woods, clearly recognized the importance and size of this show and wanted a big production. However, as anyone who has done a show in the Berklee Performance Center will tell you, there is not enough space for a big set. For that, there needs to be a pit and the BPC doesn’t have one at the moment.
There was still a set and a great one at that. Constructed in five days, the set consisted of a tall, wooden staircase with vines covering almost every inch of it. On the top of the staircase was a small living space with a chair and lamp and underneath were small entryways where actors could hide or interact with other characters within the staircase. It was stellar to watch them take full advantage of this set, and the idea that it was constructed in such a short time is incredible.
The show featured many seniors at Berklee, including Rhys Conklin, Josie Long and Claire Joy Moss. Rhys Conklin played Cinderella, a big part with a difficult range. She handled this challenging role with grace and dignity, especially in songs like “Steps of the Palace” and “No One Is Alone.” Claire Joy Moss played the Witch, probably the most complicated role in the show. One minute she’s sincere and honest with the audience, and the next she’s trying to kill main characters. While there were a few missed opportunities in her acting, ultimately, I feel Moss’s vocals and stage presence more than made up for it. A couple of other stand-outs were seniors Nathan Schwartzberg as The Mysterious Man, who was hilarious and tragic at the same time, and Ben Romanelli as Jack, whose relationship with his “friend” the cow may have been taken a little too literally, but who I also felt added energy and wackiness that was much appreciated.
Overall, the production was a success. The only issues for me had nothing to do with the actors or the direction. The Berklee Performance Center was once a movie theater. It’s not fit to serve the acoustics or direction of regular music performances, let alone a theatrical production. Despite this, Berklee and Boston Conservatory students were able to come together with a playful, enjoyable production that was full of heart and energy for all who watched.