Casting a magic spell..

MTSU students cast magic spell on stage.

By: Christopher Kingsley 

Published: Sept. 21, 2011 (Vol. 90 No. 4)

It’s been a theatrical season with one name on the minds of many – Stephen Sondheim.

The man behind such great Broadway shows like, “Sunday In the Park with George” “Company,” “Sweeny Todd,” and a cadre of others to his credit, has been widely talked about for months. Sondheim’s 1971 opus “Follies,” written with James Goldman recently was revived at the Kennedy Center in Washington, to rave reviews.

The same production opened just this past week at Broadway’s Marquis Theatre to much the same praise.

Whenever a new production of a Sondheim show is mounted, it creates a certain amount of buzz. His music is legendary. His lyrics, divine.  Every show he creates has that quality about it that is at once fantastic, yet indefinable.

Therefore, when I heard the MTSU School of Music Opera Workshop and Department of Speech and Theatre were doing “Into the Woods” I squealed with unabashed happiness.

“Into The Woods,” as any theater student and musical theater junkie will tell you, is a show that everyone can connect to. Timeless fairytales paired with the music and lyrics of Sondheim; make his 1988 TONY Award Winner, his most accessible show to date.

members of the original 1987 Broadway company It’s too bad the 81-year-old composer/lyricist was not in Thursday’s opening night audience. He would have been impressed.

I will admit, I was very nervous upon hearing, “Once Upon a Time.” The iconic storybook phrase and the musical chord that follows, opens the show. Everyone is committed at that point. It’s that “Break a leg” moment. The three vignettes: Cinderella, the lad Jack and Baker and his Wife, are introduced in an extended prologue as we meet the entire ensemble.

Everyone counts in this show, without one element, the fairytale quality is lost.

During the Prologue, we’re also introduced to the central character: The Witch, (Alexandra McNamara) a role in which Bernadette Peters played so well on Broadway. Peters’ was so perfect in the original Broadway production; many have tried to emulate her styling and performance. I was hoping for something more original. Unfortunately, I felt as if I was watching Peters, through Ms. McNamara on stage. Credit is so due though; McNamara’s stage presence is undeniably spot on. Her portrayal of the Witch is wonderful, but it, it’s as she’s trying to channel someone else, and it just doesn’t quite work.

Duly impressive are The Baker, (Justin Bourdet) and his wife (Brandee Kent) whose stage presence and warmth on stage is palpable.  Their first act duet, “It Takes Two” is a show highlight.

Jack (Matt Hunter) is funny and takes the audience into his heart as he fawns over his cow, Milky White.  Hunter’s two solos “I Guess This is Goodbye” and “Giants In the Sky” are wonderful to hear.

Sondheim employs a bit of humor and the roles of the two Princes (Philip Boston and Drew Jenkins) add just the right amount of vanity and camp as they both sing “Agony” in both the first and second acts. The audience loved it, probably as much as they enjoyed looking at two princes on stage.

Despite some minor carps: vocal diction/projection and faulty sound  – all in all MTSU should be praised for mounting a Sondheim show. It’s easy to tell that the cast members loved what they were doing and the audience gave the same energy back. I even heard people humming as they were leaving the theater. I love that. If people go away singing and humming the tunes, that’s a very good sign

“Art Isn’t Easy,” as Sondheim once wrote. He is right. It’s not. But, the challenge and the thrill of discovery that makes it worthwhile.

David and Kristi Shamburger (Directors) I give a rousing ovation. There is nothing more telling than now a production is directed. Their time and dedication are paramount and I thank them wholeheartedly.

I truly wouldn’t mind going “Into the Woods,” every evening.

…I Wish.

Writers Note: The roles of the two princes are double cast. There is a correction: Stephen White performed during thursday, September 15th’s opening night 

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