Getting to direct on the Majestic stage has been a tumultuous journey through the metaphorical woods for Johanna Spencer.
A longtime director and actor at various local theaters, Spencer was initially tapped to direct at the Majestic for the now defunct Corvallis Community Theatre a few years before the theater was pulled into the Parks and Recreation fold in 2015. But before she could bring her ideas to the stage, most of that season of shows was cancelled and forgotten.
It would be years until Spencer tried again, finally throwing her hat back into the ring by proposing a show for the Majestic’s 18-19 season. She brought a big show, Cinderella, and felt good about her chances of taking the stage. Her proposal was accepted and things were ready to move forward… until issues with the show’s rights arose and the show was pulled suddenly. It was yet another obstacle on Spencer’s journey to the stage.
But she would not be deterred.
Spencer needed a show that would stick. A show worthy of her grand aspirations. A show that would perfectly mirror the chaotic journey she took to direct on the Majestic stage and finally give her the “happy ever after” she’d been looking for.
And that show is Into the Woods.
Written by James Lapine with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods opens at the Majestic Theatre on May 3rd and runs for three weekends. Evening performances run at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m..
A Sondheim classic, the show bundles a variety of famous fairytale characters and shuffles them together, intertwining their classic tales and going far past their traditional ending points.
There’s Jack (David Lake), most known for his obsession with beanstalks, Little Red Riding Hood (Brittanie Sorensen), Cinderella (Abigail Brockamp) and Rapunzel (Laurel Strobel) and their two respective princes (Joshua Smith, Cailin Mackenzie).
And at the center, the connective tissue that binds them all together is The Baker (AJ Millet), The Baker’s Wife (Katie Smith) and The Witch (Nicole Kent).
A curse, some beans, a hungry grandmother, and a handful of less-than-satisfying relationships kickstarts a night that changes each character’s life forever. But don’t be fooled — Sondheim and Lapine may be using fairytale characters, but the story is darker than you remember. Death, infidelity, infertility. Your children will be pulled in by the pomp and circumstance while you laugh, cry, and contemplate the ramifications of these “wholesome fairytales.”
The Majestic’s volunteers are giving their all to bring the woods to Corvallis in this show and that starts with the production design. The stage promises to deliver a layered wooded forest, a puppeteered “Milky White” (Georgie Merback), Jack’s faithful cow, and more than a few… big surprises.
While the Majestic’s last musical, Catch Me If You Can, was one of the most dance-heavy shows the theatre has put on, Sondheim’s classic doesn’t feature much choreography. But Spencer found a way to pull in her talented friend to choreograph a batch of youth dancers she added to fill out certain scenes.
“There is a great deal of ballet and lyrical/contemporary dance in the choreography for the Birds and the Harp due to my experience as a ballet dancer, teacher and choreographer,” said Megan Skinner, the show’s choreographer and president of Willamette Apprentice Ballet.
She’s called her experience with this cast “a genuine pleasure,” citing how easy it was to work with the impressive ensemble, regardless of age.
Of course, there is no dancing without the music. Music Director David Campbell had a tall task ahead of him when he signed up for the show. Sondheim’s work can be complex to say the least, but Campbell proved to be more than capable.
“I particularly enjoy conducting Into The Woods because there is so much music going on all the time,” explained Campbell. “In many ways, this show is like an opera with nearly constant musical underscoring rather than a traditional musical that has long dialogue sections without music. The rhythms, intervals, and staggered entrances are super challenging and require intense focus from the performers.”
Most of the show’s leads have had featured roles in previous Majestic musicals and, if rehearsals are to be believed, are ready for those intense rhythms and the operatic Sondheim style.
And while many may have opinions about the more classical musical stylings of Sondheim, Spencer promises that she isn’t letting the show stay stagnant against the changing times.
“I’ve always considered myself a feminist but I don’t recall thinking how passive the Baker’s Wife was in the original production,” Spencer said. “We’ve spiced it up in a few places and made sure a lot of the women make their own decisions.”
One of those strong female roles is The Witch, who drives the action for much of the play. Actress Nicole Kent finds the role to be more progressive than meets the eye.
“The Witch is ugly and different so she is shunned,” explained Kent. “She speaks truths that others are afraid to give voice to, so she is ignored. In a kingdom full of naïve optimists, the Witch is the unpopular truth-teller proving ‘witches can be right.’”
“The idea that you can maintain your strength and independence while embracing connectedness and vulnerability is the lesson the Witch is teaching me.”
AJ Millet, the everyman behind The Baker, echoed many of his colleagues thoughts and his closing statement summarized the show succinctly.
“Many of us have had moments of stability and safety in our lives, but unexpected events force us ‘into the woods’ and make us redefine ourselves and adapt to uncertainty before ending up in a completely different situation,” punctuated Millet. “Hopefully, [my] character can help take you through this emotional and stressful journey while helping us all laugh at ourselves, go for our dreams, and remember that we are not alone.”
Into the Woods is a love it or hate it kind of show, but it’s also one that is worth a watch, even if you’ve otherwise written off Sondheim’s special style of musical. It provides deeper meaning to classic tales, gives these larger than life characters a layer of relatability, and has more than a few earworms in its soundtrack. The Majestic knows how to put on a musical, so we say, into the woods we go.
Into the Woods opens this weekend and runs through May 19. Tickets will run $18 for adults and $16 for students and seniors. Opening night tickets are $10 for all who attend and Thursday tickets are $10 as well!
-By Nathan Hermanson, exclusive for The Advocate. Hermanson works at The Majestic, and he loves theatre.