Into the Woods, Out of the Woods and Home Before Dark

There is a very strong ensemble of young performers bringing Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s production of Into the Woods (Junior) to the Neptune Scotiabank Studio Theatre through December 16th, 2012. These members of Neptune Theatre School’s Youth Performance Company are between the ages of thirteen and eighteen and have been training together with a myriad of instructors at the theatre school since last July.

What is immediately striking about this production is how consistent the company is, especially vocally, with no one person dominating as the “star,” but rather the collective seventeen of them sharing the focus in roles that accentuate their particular strengths. Into the Woods is a great choice for such a cast as it is a blending of fairytales and so rather than having one primary protagonist, it features the intersection of a multitude of different heroes from different classic tales.

There are some really interesting acting choices in this production. Chad Hendrickson’s Jack (of Beanstalk fame) is less dimwitted in this production and more thoroughly dejected over the loss of his beloved cow Milky White (who he sells to the Baker and his wife in exchange for beans). This loss seems to be what propels him into the Land of the Giant and his spirits are only recovered once he has enough money to buy the creature back. Jakob Creighton’s Baker seems thoroughly exasperated (and not at all surprised) with the quest imparted onto him by the Witch to dispel the curse she has placed upon his family. This suggests that perhaps the Witch has been bothering him and his wife with quests and curses ever since they moved next door to her. Amelia Topshee’s Baker’s Wife comes thoroughly alive only in the presence of the two Princes, suggesting her own tedium with everyday life. Isobel LeBlanc has great vocal and physical command of the Witch and Peter Issekutz and Lachlan Topshee show great comic prowess as the two absurdly pompous Princes. Emily MacMillan has great innocence and exuberance as Little Red Riding Hood (and a perfect high pitch screech when things don’t go her way). She makes a part that is often quite unlikable sweet and endearing.

The groundwork for all these characters has certainly been laid in this production and there is room here for all of the performers to be even bolder and bigger in their characterizations and physicalizations of these iconic archetypes from childhood in a more three dimensional way. The humour can be pushed ever further to the limits. There is even more to play with and explore. Stephen Sondheim fills his lyrics with a powerful duplicity of meaning that helps to give these characters their psychological depth, which can be difficult to communicate in song, especially for younger performers. What does Little Red Riding Hood mean by “isn’t it nice to know a lot/and a little bit not”? What does Cinderella learn on the Steps of the Palace? These songs are monologues set to music. With Sondheim no word can be thrown away, in fact every one can be mined for a plethora of meaning and significance and the clearer grasp the actor has on exactly what he or she wants to communicate with every choice of word, the clearer the audience can grasp the internal workings of these character’s minds and their motivations.

Director Alexis Milligan makes some great artistic choices in this production. The most striking is to have the Narrator, played with great energy by Jenna Curwin, as a teenager caught between a desire to grow up and a need to hold on to a bit of her childhood. This Narrator interacts and becomes entangled in the stories she is telling and one can really see the parallel here in the way she deliberately thwarts her characters’ wishes, but keeps throwing them metaphorical ropes to ensure their tales end happy Ever after. Milligan also makes fun use of shadow puppets and good use of space. The little dance interludes were so charming; I wished that there were more of them.

At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeonly old grandfather glorifying the “good old days,” I have to say that I have been disheartened for the last number of years that Neptune Theatre School has reduced the Youth Performance Company from a program that spanned August to May, every Saturday & Sunday 10:00am-6:00pm, as it was when I was a member in 2000-01) to one less than half that length. These seventeen young performers are a very talented bunch with incredible potential and I have the sense that this production, as uniformly strong as it is, only grazes the surface of what this company could do with more time. The Canadian Theatre is a highly competitive and saturated market, it is very difficult to get into post-secondary theatre schools and Halifax needs to be stringent in its dedication to providing its passionate and talented young people with the best training possible to give them a fighting chance to turn their passion into a viable career, if that is the road they choose. Personally, giving up almost every weekend at sixteen years old to rehearse a show that we not only performed at the Neptune Studio but also toured for a week to elementary schools around the province (which often meant a call time of 5:00am and always included loading and unloading our own set) was the best training I had to prepare me for life as a professional actor. It was an invaluable experience that I would recommend to anyone who dreams of someday working in the industry and one that I would strongly urge Neptune Theatre School to revisit.

If this is the quality of production that this ensemble is capable of with only a little over two months rehearsal, think of what they would be able to learn and accomplish in six.

Neptune Theatre School’s production of Into the Woods plays nightly at the Neptune Theatre Scotiabank Studio Theatre (1593 Argyle Street, next door to The Argyle Bar & Grill) until December 16th, 2012 at 7:30pm with 2:00pm matinees on December 15th and 16th. Tickets are available by calling the Box Office at 902.429.7070, visiting in person at 1593 Argyle Street or going online to this website.

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