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Saturday, April 15, 2023

URI Theatre goes deep into the woods with Sondheim modern classic

‘Into The Woods’ opens in Will Theatre on April 20

Tony LaRoche

From left, Ben Perreria (The Baker), Kyle Smith (Jack),
Zoe Pepin (Cinderella) and Lauren Todd (Jack’s Mother)
appear in URI Theatre’s production of “Into The Woods.”
(URI Photos/Jesse Dufault)

Ever wonder what happens after “happily ever after” in your favorite fairy tales? It might not be pretty.

You can get an entertaining take on the aftermath when the University of Rhode Island Theatre Department stages the popular “Into The Woods,” Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s modern classic that reworks fairy tales we all remember from childhood. The play opens a six-show run Thursday, April 20, in Robert E. Will Theatre in the Fine Arts Center.

The Tony Award-winning musical intricately blends the plots of Brothers Grimm fairy tales, following Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Jack (of the Beanstalk). Tying the musical together are the Baker and his Wife, who want to start a family but have been cursed by the Witch. To lift the curse, they have three days to bring the Witch Red Riding Hood’s cape, a lock of Rapunzel’s hair, Cinderella’s golden slippers and Jack’s cow.

The first act wraps up nicely – curse lifted, storybook characters’ wishes fulfilled – happily ever after achieved. But there is a whole second act to stage – full of deceit, infidelity, a rampaging giant, and death. 

“It’s like two different musicals in tone,” says director Tracy Liz Miller, assistant teacher professor in theatre. “In the second act, we’re reintroduced to the same characters. It’s happily ever after – but is it?  It’s fascinating. We’ve all grown up with these stories and what happens at the end of the book. Happily ever after isn’t really reality. No one is immortal, no one is without sickness or hardship.”

“One of the things that makes this show so popular is its enchanting nature,” says Naomi Tyler ’23, of Warwick, who plays the Witch. “The mystical qualities of each character and their stories make it so easy for the audience to fall into that world. However, underneath the gorgeous voices and costumes remains a story of love, loss, chosen family, deception and pain. I believe there is a lesson in the show for absolutely everyone.”

“I think ‘Into The Woods’ is so popular because it shows well-known characters, but in a way we haven’t seen them,” adds Giulia Russo ’23, an education and theatre major. “After the happily ever after we see in act one and the endings we are all familiar with, the characters find themselves going down a path that is unfamiliar to them and the audience. They have to work together to figure out the end of the story. I think that really resonates with people.” 

Zoe Pepin ’23, a theatre major from Maynard, Massachusetts, who plays Cinderella, says she wanted to be in the musical because it encompasses all the things she grew up loving – music, singing and the fairy tales she was raised on.

“Cinderella is definitely a dream role for me,” she says. “My favorite thing about her is her development over the course of the story. She starts the musical naive and indecisive, but grows to be determined and responsible. The role challenges me to fully embody both a clumsy wanna-be-princess and a resolute survivor.”

Russo, of Caldwell, New Jersey, always wanted to play a princess and found that role in Rapunzel. “It’s definitely a dream role and one I’ve had a lot of fun playing. It’s been a challenge to really dig into her story.”

The role of the Witch, says Tyler, is a lot less simple than it might seem. “The damage from her past causes her to love Rapunzel so deeply, and in turn causes the same damage she suffered. What could be a very fun or ‘evil’ role is actually filled with so much passion and pain.”  

The nearly three-hour play itself – like the giant and his mother, who wreak havoc – is a beast to produce, Miller says. The play has about 35 actors, a production team of about 35 designers, technicians, managers, artists, and more. 

“There’s 18 lead actors and another 15 or 16 understudies,” Miller says. “There are lots of props, lots of costumes, lots of scenery, and we’re probably going to have one of the more complicated lighting designs that we’ve done in a long time. Thank goodness for all the brains to keep it organized.”

Along with the production team, Miller has gotten help from theatre professor Paula McGlasson, who directed URI’s 2003 production of “Into The Woods,” and many other Sondheim musicals. Also, visiting artist Esther Zabinski, a professional musician and conductor based in Rhode Island, has played an important role as music director. The show has music front to back – with about 90 “distinct musical starting points” and a 12-piece orchestra.

“Steven Sondheim’s work is the Shakespeare of musicals,” said Miller. “It takes a very talented, skilled music director to not only teach the music to the actors but also conduct the orchestra alongside the show.”

While the play has captured the hearts of millions, it is full of marginalized characters, socioeconomic and gender bias, ableism, and some very nasty deeds – all common in the Brothers Grimm fairy tales that serve as its source material, Miller says.

In exploring their own characters, the actors have been focusing on the stories of those marginalized characters.

“We’re tasked with training our next professional actors to enter the world and we’re dealing with questions we don’t know the answers to,” she says. “We’re asking who deserves to be living, who deserves to have safety. Those are the conversations we’re having.

“We honor the playwrights’ work,” she adds. “And if we honor it, we should allow the audience to ask the questions themselves. Our work allows the audience to come to their own conclusions and how they feel about that.”

Pardon our appearance: With the Fine Arts Center undergoing construction, patrons must use the theater entrance in the back of the building, accessed from the parking lot on Bills Road. Look for the marked entrance to the right of the fenced off construction area.

“Into The Woods” runs April 21-22 and 27-28 at 7:30 p.m. and on April 23 and 30 at 2 p.m. in Will Theatre at the Fine Arts Center, 105 Upper College Road, Kingston Campus. Tickets are $20 for the general public and $18 for senior citizens and URI students, faculty and staff. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling (401) 874-5843. For more information on tickets and the University’s COVID-19 policy, go to the ticket website.