Stephen Sondheim’s award-winning musical about a mashup of fairy tales and efforts to reverse a witch’s curse arrives at the Acrosstown Repertory Theatre.
Lola Bond has plenty of experience singing in stage musicals. She’s played a variety of musical roles, including Miss Andrew in Mary Poppins, Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar and the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz.
But none of those roles requires the range of vocals of the Witch in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, opening this week at the Acrosstown Repertory Theatre in downtown Gainesville.
“She never shuts up!” Bond said of the character popularized by Bernadette Peters on Broadway and by Meryl Streep in the more recent Disney film version. “I’m not used to belting it out like this. It’s challenging.”
Then again, everyone gets to sing in Into the Woods, the Tony Award-winning musical in which Bond’s witch tasks a childless baker and his wife with procuring magical items from other classic fairy tales — like Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel — to reverse the infertility curse.
Opening Night for Into the Woods is Thursday at 8 at the Acrosstown, 619 S. Main St. (in the Baird Center). There will also be performances Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. The production continues with four shows a week through Nov. 18.
The play had been scheduled to open a week ago but was delayed when Devin Hutchingson, who plays Jack, came down with strep throat and was advised by his doctor that singing could permanently hurt his voice. (Talk about a curse!)
Kaitlyn Graves, who is directing Into the Woods, said the extra week of rehearsals has resulted in an even better production.
“No one ever feels they have enough time to rehearse for a show,” she said. “The extra week helped the actors calm down and focus. It’s actually been really good for the actors and their character development.”
Graves added: “Everyone’s healthy now. Devin is tip-top. He’s a trouper. He’ll be great as Jack. They’re all great.”
Much of Into the Woods centers around the baker and his wife, played by real-life couple Michael Presley Bobbitt and Laura Beth Jackson.
“I’ve been in love with this show forever,” Bobbitt said. “It’s got an absentee-father story arc, which was also part of my life as a young boy. It triggers all the emotions for me. I get choked up during rehearsals.”
Bobbitt is coming off a whirlwind two months in which Sunset Village, a play he wrote, debuted at the Broadway Bound Theatre Festival in New York City and then had a record-shattering three-week run at the Acrosstown. Now Bobbitt gets a chance to perform onstage the Into the Woods role James Corden played in the movie.
“I’m not a super-big musical guy,” Bobbitt said. “This is one of the few musicals I’d ever want to be in — and I get to be in a play with my wife, which is very cool. She’s more the musical person.”
Into the Woods is a modern twist on the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tales penned more than 200 years ago.
“I’ve always loved fairy tales, and I really like this play because it tells what happens after the happily-ever-after,” said Jackson, whose most recent singing role was as Janet in the ART’s Rocky Horror Show a year ago.
“I like my role as the baker’s wife because she’s a very strong female character. Her husband tells her to stay home, but she doesn’t listen to him.”
Jackson said that Sondheim, who has won more Tony Awards (eight) than any other composer, has a reputation of being difficult to sing.
“The rhythm is unique and the time signatures are all over the map,” she said. “As a trade-off, the lyrics are so natural. The songs are very conversational and beautiful.”
Bond said the story and music of Into the Woods make for an unbeatable combination.
“I think the story is relatable because we all grew up with fairy tales, but it’s more interesting because it puts a switch on the original,” she said. “It’s closer to the Grimm’s Fairy Tales than the softer ones we grew up with.
“And then you put the brilliance of Sondheim behind it, and it’s magical.”
Jackie Collins, who plays Cinderella, is vocal director for the Acrosstown’s production of Into the Woods. Her background includes teaching choir and theater at Florida Gateway College in Lake City. She now teaches at both Howard W. Bishop and Lincoln middle schools in Gainesville.
“We did Into the Woods at the college two years ago and I realized a few things about it,” Collins said. “Although musically it is very difficult and you need strong singers, I feel you actually need stronger actors for this show. And these are actors who can sing.”
Collins, who performed last year as Columbia in Rocky Horror Show, said Into the Woods contains story lines that not everybody notices.
“One of my favorite lines is said by Little Red: ‘Nice is different than good’,” she said. “It lets the audience see how their perception of every character changes.”
She likes how Cinderella seems nerdy and unsure of herself early, but then changes dramatically during and after the ball.
“It’s almost a joke that she’s dirty and gets treated like crap and that she can transform,” Collins said. “She’s definitely more unstable than she appears to be. She talks to birds and her dead mother’s ghost — and that’s supposed to be normal!”
The Into the Woods cast also includes Emma Grimm (Little Red Riding Hood), Justin Clement (Cinderella’s Prince), Ian Hales (Rapunzel’s Prince), Ashlyn Brooke (Rapunzel), Norma Berger (Stepmother), Jennifer Hutton and Elizabeth Rossen (the Stepsisters, Lucinda and Florinda), Badger Moring, Jr. (Cinderella’s father), Saie Danam (The Steward), Carolyne Salt (Jack’s mother), Anna Marie Kirkpatrick (Milky White the Cow), Mandy Fugate (Cinderella’s mother), Eric Hill (Birds) and Jesse Vale (The Narrator and Mysterious Man). Several actors play additional roles.
This is Graves’ directorial debut at the Acrosstown although she had roles this past year in Measure for Measure and The Skin of Our Teeth. She moved to Gainesville a year ago from Iowa. She directed Into the Woods in 2016 at Eddyville High School there.
“I like the adult version because it’s challenging and makes the performers better,” she said. “They have to work really hard to pull it off.”
Beyond the singing and acting, audiences should also get drawn into Into the Woods by the lighting, set design and costumes.
Carolyne Salt designed the lights, which she described as “a surprisingly nuanced plot for such a complicated show,” adding “If I’ve done my job, you’ll forget there’s any stage lighting at all because you’ll BE in the woods along with us.”
Graves designed the set, although Bobbitt gets credit for Repunzel’s “post-apocalyptic, steam-punk” tower and for the extensive foliage that he said includes 87 trees blown over in Hurricane Irma.
“When you walk in the theater, it’s an immersive fairy-tale forest,” he said. “When you walk through the front doors of the Acrosstown, you’re going to feel like you’re literally walking into the woods.”
— Noel Leroux
Into the Woods
Acrosstown Repertory Theatre
619 S. Main St. (in the Historic Baird Hardware Center)
Performances: Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. through Nov. 18.
Tickets: $20 general admission, $15 for students, seniors, veterans and active military.