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Opening Night Review: UGF’s ‘Into the Woods’ dazzles

Strong acting, killer set design makes this a joy to watch

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Into the Woods: Featuring Books. Books. EVERYWHERE!
Into the Woods: Featuring Books. Books. EVERYWHERE!

As a disclaimer I am never a fan of doing a review on opening night. It is typically the day that the little things that you didn’t notice in dress rehearsal become little thorns in the side of the show.  However, most shows don’t run longer than two weekends so to get a review out in quick order we take the Rose/show, thorns and all, and present it to you.  By the time you watch the show, the thorns I have witnessed may be gone.

Please also keep in mind that this reviewer will hold UGF’s performances to a higher standard than most other shows. They have a track record of success, a very experienced cast and crew, and have shown that they know how to make a musical shine brightly.

Friday the 13th is an interesting day to open a play. It may not matter, but if your’e a superstitious sort, it can be seen as a day of bad luck. Did that affect last night’s show at UGF? Let’s take a look at how they did.

“Into the Woods’” music and lyrics were written by Stephen Sondheim (a legend in musical theater). The book was written by James Lapine. It first made its appearance on Broadway in 1986, and was recently made into a feature film by Disney. It’s a very well-known play that became a neo-classic for a new generation of musical fans during the last quarter century.  Based on our past experiences trying to draw regular, non-theater people to come to shows we have put on in Great Falls, it will be interesting to see if people show up. If the rest of the shows  are anything like opening night… you should. In fact, if you’re reading this and you haven’t seen it yet, you should get on down to UGF theater as soon as possible.

Behind the Scenes The Ladies are all smiles
Behind the Scenes The Ladies are all smiles

STORY:
The story combines several familiar Brother’s Grim fables. It throws them into a blender and mixes them into an enjoyable, though, uneven story.

It involves Cinderella running away from her prince charming, a baker trying to locate four items with his wife so that they could have kids one day, and Jack, from Jack and the Beanstalk, selling his cow for some beans.  All of this happens in the woods, thus the title, and thereby the hijinks start to ensue.

The first act of “Into the Woods,” is perfect on many levels. The only gripe is being told about the fantastical story of Jack and the beanstalk. While it would be ideal to show the incident, there are so many other story threads going on that this oversight can be easily forgiven.

The second act, conversely, is a complete release from the whimsical tone that makes the first act sparkle. The main problem with the story is that the antagonist is a giant who is never seen, only heard through a booming voice.

As a narrative it is frustrating, who wouldn’t want to see a giant destroying the kingdom?

From a logical standpoint, it makes sense (Giants are notoriously difficult actors to work with.) But the play’s dark undertones are part of what makes it a neo-classic, and that’s probably why UGF decided to run with the play. So let’s look at where they have excelled, and where they need some work.

Nothing more glamorous than having your hair done.
Nothing more glamorous than having your hair done.

FIRST JEERS:

One of the few complaints I have about this production of “Into the Woods,” is that UGF’s stage is not an ideal fit for a show of this scope.

Those that have been into UGF’s theater know the stage is not wide, and when there is a lot going on, it becomes very crowded. This will always be a problem UGF will have when hosting shows.

Nothing, obviously, can be done about this, but it’s still a small downfall in the production.

Knowing this, kudos must be given to set designer Barbara Lassiter who has created a very intuitive set that gets the most out of the limited space, while still holding a sense of spectacle.

Most the time the lack of space doesn’t hinder performances  but during the song “Stay With Me,” between the Witch (Britanie McOscar) and Rupunzel (Courtney Tank) the lack of area to tell the story shortchanges a very emotional  performance.

The joys of Step Sisters
The joys of Step Sisters

THE PERFORMANCES:

With the exception of some opening night jitters, the performances for “Into the Woods” all were stellar.

It’s hard to single out a favorite performance among the group from an acting stand point. But it was easy to get lost in the performances. Peter Onstad and Laura McCain have a killer chemistry between them that makes their scenes with the Baker and his wife incredibly fun to watch. Chemistry is one thing that isn’t always easy to develop.

Alicia Norling’s take of Little Red is this author’s favorite rendition of the character that I’ve seen, though I would like to know if Alicia’s lisp disappearing in the second act was by design or choice. That aside, she plays the character with a playful, innocent menace that works incredibly well.

Hayley Letcher, Stephanie Avila, and Morgan Merja also play Cinderella’s Stepmother and sisters with cackling glee.

Matthew Bartolotta and Ryan Hurley play the princes and have the audiences eating out of their hands as they perform their duets and deliver their lines.  With this cast in place, there really isn’t a weak link in the bunch. They work so well together that there are times when you could easily mistake the play as a traveling professional production.  So kudos to the cast. But while the acting was stellar, the singing showed that’s there is always room for

Mother says, sell your best friend.
Mother says, sell your best friend.

improvement.

Sondheim musicals are not easy sing-a-longs. Quick-paced lyrics that don’t go with a natural rhythm make them particularly hard, and knowing this makes the performances in “Into the Woods” that much more impressive.

Using prerecorded music, if an actor flubs a line there is no conductor to slow down the march of the orchestra until the actor catches up.  It’s do or die.
And the actors do… mostly.

About 90 percent of the time, the actors are on key, in pitch and on cue. But there are moments where a line is missed, or said too early in the song. This could be attributed to opening night jitters but every time the actors powered through, found their beat, and went on with the show.

The fact that 90 percent of the time these actors are hitting these cues, (and not just hitting them, they were performing on par with paid performers) is a tribute to Meghan Wakeley, who has worked tirelessly with them behind the scenes to make the music sound fantastic. Of special note, Gina Hart (Cinderella), Ryan Hurley (Wolf/Prince) and Matthew Bartolotta (Prince) nailed their singing parts with such

Cinderella is so happy to be a part of this.
Cinderella is so happy to be a part of this.

consistency that this reviewer couldn’t find flubs in their singing performances.

TECHNICAL DUTY:

You always feel sorry to the technical aspects of a play. If they do their job perfect, they go unnoticed, but if they mess up, everyone in the audience knows it. It’s the most thankless task in all of theater.

Like any opening night, “Into the Woods” had a few technical shortcomings. A missed light cue here, not bringing up a mic quick enough there, a blown out mic in the next scene,  a prop getting stuck in the curtain at an inopportune moment there, these things happen.

Please understand I’m nitpicking, for opening night the production teams behind the curtain made things happen very smoothly, and I am certain that even Saturday night’s performance will cut the number of mistakes considerably.

OVERALL:
Would I recommend you see the show? Yes.

Witch's Exposition which drives the story forward.
Witch’s Exposition which drives the story forward.

Strong production values with killer performances from the cast make this an easy yes.  Go see “Into the Woods” at UGF Theater, for the spectacle of what live theater can do.
STORY:                                                  6.5/10
PRODUCTION VALUE:                    8.5/10
ACTING PERFORMANCES:            10/10
SINGING PERFORMANCES:         9.0/10

THE PERFORMERS:
There are two different casts for “Into the Woods.” The two alternate every other show. The show I reviewed had the following:
Gina Hart as Cinderella
Cameron Martell as Jack
Stephanie Merja as Jack’s mother
Peter Onstad as the Baker
Laura McCain as the Baker’s Wife
Alicia Norling as Little Red
Britanie McOscar as the Witch
Ryan Hurley as Cinderella’s prince/the Wolf

Filling her basket with glorious prop food.
Filling her basket with glorious prop food.

The rest of the cast plays both performances:
Rebecca Raynor as Narrator/Mysterious Man
Matthew Bartolotta as Rapunzel’s Prince
Hayley Letcher as Cinderella’s Stepmother
Stephanie Avila as Florinda
Morgan Merja  as Lucinda
Byron Doherty as Cinderella’s Father
Melanie Hauer as Cinderella’s Mother/Granny/Giant
Courtney Tank as Rapunzel
Michael Thom as Steward
Amanda Barczynski as Sleeping Beauty
Autumn Rehbein as Snow White.

PLAYTIMES:
Nov. 13-15 Fri. (7:30pm), Sat. (2:00pm, 7:30pm) Sun. (2:00).
Nov. 19-21 Thurs. (7:30 pm), Fri. (7:30pm) Sat. (2:00pm, 7:30pm)

Cost is $17 for the Friday and Saturday evening shows. All others are $14.
All performances are at the UGF theater.

Jake Sorich will have a second review on Sunday of the second cast’s performance, so watch for that on Big Sky State Buzz. 

Editor's Rating

8.6
Strong production values with killer performances from the cast make this an easy yes. Go see “Into the Woods” at UGF Theater, for the spectacle of what live theater can do.
1 User ratings
8.6

PROS

Great acting, good singing and an entertaining chemistry between the cast members make this a joy to watch.

CONS

The limited size of the stage hurts some of the performances, and there were a few minor technical issues, which is common for opening night.
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