“Into the Woods,” the musical performed by the Rappahannock County High School Drama Club last weekend, takes us from the safety of the pavement and the path, into a twisted wonderland of fairy tales turned upside down. It takes us back into childhood, and offers us a chance to see what might lurk between the lines of innocent bedtime stories.
When the curtain rises, we are greeted by the upbeat narration of a bow-tied man with a cane, and we see several fairy tales unfolding before us at once. We see bright colors and magic, but sadness, doubt and desire begin to manifest like shadows across the stage. The scenes switch flawlessly, with sets and props manipulated by dark figures in odd top hats.
Characters in exquisite costume come and go, and nary a scene goes by that doesn’t have some capricious beauty hidden within it. The vocals spring from the characters with ease, and carry well into the darkness beyond the lights. It’s loud, it’s gentle, it’s a song cycle. It’s a lyric masterpiece, it’s dark, it’s whimiscal.
It took five months for this 22-member cast, directed by RCHS’s imaginative Russell Paulette, to capture all the brilliant nuances. Paulette has inspired everyone who has worked on this production, as his direction recalls his own sense of wonder as a young drama student.
This was no ordinary high school production. There were 20 additional crew members for stage work, lighting, sound, costumes, set design, plus a 10-member pit orchestra led by Rachel Siegfried.
Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine may have woven the pathos of childhood and adulthood together, but, without a vibrant delivery, the songs would fall flat, and the story would be left untold. Not so here. The cast sang and acted clearly and directly, without a hint of overreaching. They had chemistry. They were believable. It was sublime.
Going in order of appearance, Nich Hipple’s narrator was charming and just oily enough, and he carried his cane well, given that Nick actually has an anterior cruciate ligament issue. He gave his mysterious woodsman wisdom, and was just crotchety enough, probably due to the pain from that torn ACL.
Emma Fisher was a beautiful Cinderella, and wore her rags-to-riches role like a street urchin turned supermodel. Philipp Strachwitz, as Jack, sang from his heart, and charmed us as he pet his best friend, a milky white cow, played by a patient, and occasionally grunting, Matt Beck. (Udderly amazing that you were on all fours for three hours, Matt. You were barn for that role, sir.)
Jack’s Mother was played by the astounding Sara Ames. Sara was subtly comic, shared her incredible voice, and gave us not a wasted movement in her gestures. See you on Broadway, kid. Zach Huff, playing the baker, gave us another sterling performance, with a confidence that says this is just the beginning. Kelsa Settle sang and acted the part of the baker’s wife, and never missed a note in both performances. She has a graceful manner and a gorgeous voice, and worked well with Zach Huff.
KT Millam was splendid and loud at just the right times as Cinderella’s father. Emma Endre, Taylor Ordile and Kathryn Fisher were devious and devilish as Cinderella’s stepmother, Florinda, and Lucinda. Dressed in gowns to die for, they made wearing shades look wicked and laughed like they were possessed.
Tessa Crews was Little Red Riding Hood with a twist. She carried off the giddy innocence but evened the score with the Big Bad Wolf by wearing his skin as a hoodie. Miss Crews sang well and was enchanting, hitting the soft passages in her songs with an edgy sweetness. Naomi Weingarten as the Witch looked scary and made a little boy behind me ask his mom if they could leave. Stay strong, little buddy, I said. Naomi started singing and the lad and I were charmed, as she hit us with that Weingarten voodoo. Sending her voice into dark air behind us, she cast spells, threw people around, and helped us all itch our witch switch itch. Her long black robe, her red dress and the green light behind her, were better than any AC/DC concert I’ve been to.
Joanna Hughes was perfect as Cinderella’s mother. Appearing from nowhere, she sang in a silky voice and looked translucent, covered in green and wispy branches of silk. Will Thompson as the Big Bad Wolf was Rat Pack jazzy and artfully charming. As Cinderella’s prince, Will sang very well, and was paired nicely with another fine singer, Henry Mason, who played Rapunzel’s Prince. Will and Henry had great chemistry together, and moved like two old pros on a Las Vegas stage. They delivered their lines with comic looseness, and playfully confronted each other as they sang about the tragedy of each of their love lives. At one point they each wore a single white glove, so that their grand finale would exhibit a matching pair of white fists, each from the hand of a prince.
Keelee Armor was Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother, and she was hilarious and magnificent. She was also the voice of the giant, and she sounded . . . big. Really big. Rapunzel was played by Dani Boutte, who can really scream, and who can also sing like a bird in a lovely soprano. Ritchie Pratt was a charming steward, calm, but with anger management issues, and Lily Endre looked like an exotic, sleepy Snow White, wheeled in at the end of act one on a hand truck. The beguiling Katelyn Fisher was actually Sleeping Beauty, and she too, was wheeled in on a hand truck, asleep, at the end of act one.
This production put no one to sleep. I left both performances, wide awake to the fact that I had just seen an extraordinary presentation, that very few high schools would attempt to pull off. We truly have much to be proud of.