"Around here, however, we don't look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things...and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths."
---Walter Elias Disney

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Making Into The Woods Our Own

Community theaters get access to shows only after they have run their course on the professional circuit. We are constantly told people would LOVE to see us do Wicked or The Lion King, but we can't, they haven't been released to amateurs yet. This means the shows we produce have already been seen by, or at least become a bit familiar in a second hand way to, theater fans. They enter with expectations, not in the open-to-anything way they might go to see a show that's brand new to the world. This can present a challenge, as we simply can't do some of the things Broadway can, from a technical standpoint for sure, but even from an artistic standpoint. The last two shows Brunswick Little Theatre performed on the big stage at Odell Williamson Auditorium were perfect examples. Everyone has seen Wizard of Oz and they come to the show expecting to see familiar things. Beauty and the Beast is so popular on Broadway and as a touring show, that even those who haven't seen it know what it is "supposed" to look like. We strived to meet these expectations and I think succeeded pretty well, but it was fun this year to get a chance to break out a little bit.

Into The Woods is familiar to theater fanatics, a favorite of many, but less so to the general public. This gave us, and director Jen Iapalucci in particular, an opportunity to put our own stamp on the show. Jen possesses the most unique and wonderful form of creative intelligence I've ever run across in a person. She can imagine the most amazing things then figure out how to make them reality. This is why I call her Walt. She has a blog all about it, you should check it out. Jen took a hold of Into The Woods, an already amazing piece of art, and made it her own with two big additions. First off, she gave the whole show a Steampunk look with the sets and costumes. This turned out really well given the duality and sort-of-real/sort-of-fantasy feel of the whole show. The costumes are spectacular and the set is wowing audiences, so it's clearly worked. The Wilmington newspaper reviewer even liked it despite being "over" the whole Steampunk thing himself. The cast loves the way they look and that helps a show tremendously. Kudos to Jen and the whole set and costume crews.

But Steampunk versions of Broadway shows aren't unique. What really impressed me, and what makes this show really ours, is her addition of an all-ages (but mostly children) ensemble. The Broadway show features nothing of the sort. I never told her so, but I admire Jen's courage in doing this. It's really putting a part of herself on stage for approval. This grew out of Jen's very personal love for children and insistence on making them (including her own) a part of BLT's summer musicals. She was all-in on this, too. The ensemble wasn't
just layered on top of the show, she wove them into it. If it worked, the show worked, but if not, if audiences saw it as a distraction, it could have hurt the whole production. Jen created mini-scenes, little stories within the story, for the kids to act out. She used them to create special effects like the giant and the beanstalk. She used them to create mood and help enhance the characters around them (in one instance, for example, they are flowers that wilt as the Witch approaches). They aren't icing an audience can scape off and still enjoy the cake beneath, the are baked right in there. That was a risk, to be sure, but one Jen is uniquely qualified to take.
Most of the Ensemble in a publicity photo
The Beanstalk
Milky White, the hen that lays golden eggs and stolen giant's harp are all ensemble members

Watching this come together, I knew it worked just as Jen envisioned it. The kids took to their roles with gusto and skill and the adults allowed them right into the show with enthusiasm and understanding. I knew *I* loved it and "got" what was happening, but I wondered how a critic would see it. Would he be one of those who believed local amateur theater should be judged solely on how close to the original they could get? Or would he get it as I did? We got our answer in the Star News' review yesterday:

Iapalucci's decision to cast a chorus of kids bolsters the whole fairy tale angle. Children play the birds who aid Cinderella and they open green umbrellas on a staircase to create Jack's beanstalk. It's a winning idea, even if a couple of the young performers' roles aren't entirely clear. 

He got it. And that was nice. But I find what I like most about Jen's  additions to Into The Woods is that, even as personal and very "her" they are, they make the show BELONG to all of us in the cast and crew. This isn't Broadway's Into The Woods, it's Brunswick Little Theatre's Into The Woods.

And it's EPIC.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Things I ALREADY Love About BLT's Into The Woods

We can start with that poster. Cool, huh?

I've been happily watching this show come together and largely keeping my mouth shut about it. We open two weeks from last night. Two weeks from this moment, I will be backstage at Odell Williamson Auditorium. I like that idea. So, I'm going to list a few of the other things that make me happy about this show, and particularly Brunswick Little Theatre's production of it.

1. The Writing

James Lupine is credited with "the book" on this show. That's, to my simple understanding of musicals, the words between the songs. I imagine he and Stephen Sondheim worked together hand and glove with the lyrics and spoken word bits. The story is told largely in song, so they had to. It really worked, in ways I truly admire as an aspiring writer.

During the opening number, there's a knock on the door to The Baker's cottage. His Wife asks who it is and The Baker responds in a way that sums up so clearly where this journey is taking us. Into The Woods is largely about normal people's responses to unusual situations. It is a great mix of the fantastic and the mundane, both feeding our imagination and relating to us in ways we can completely identify with ourselves. The Baker and his Wife take it for granted there's a witch next door, but it doesn't mean they completely buy into that part about "magic beans." That just strikes me as funny, they accept she's a witch but are suspicious that the beans she claims are magical really are more than just beans. The whole show and all the characters in it are like that. They are upset by a giant walking around their little world, but accept that giants sometimes do that. Cinderella talks to birds and her dead mother, but is shocked to see a giant beanstalk. It just goes to show that "impossible" is often in the eyes of the beholder.

I'm also in love with the idea that so few characters have names. The story is centered on The Baker and The Baker's Wife. Don't assume the show is sexist for identifying the female lead only as the wife of the male lead, the two Princes and called Cinderella's Prince and Rapunzel's Prince.  We also have The Witch, Granny, Little Red Riding Hood, The Wolf, the Evil Stepmother, and Cinderella's Father. Cinderella and Rapunzel have names, of course, but they are so well-ingrained in our cultural identity that both are essentially meaningless as personal monikers. The only two "real names" in the show are the Evil Stepsisters Florinda and Lucinda, which I'm pretty sure speaks to some greater point, but I haven't figured it out yet. The lack of personal names lends the whole story a general appeal, as if it's about US and not just THEM. I'm sure that was the idea, and this isn't a new or particularly subtle way to go about generalizing one's lessons, but I love it nonetheless.  There really is a bit of all these characters in all of us. We are greedy and cutthroat and kind and generous, we are clever and simple, we are loyal and fickle, we are brave and cowardly. And our children WILL listen, just as we did to our parents and their children will to them someday.

2. Steampunk

Jen decided to give this show a steampunk flair in its costumes and set, and it's looking great. If you aren't familiar with the term, steampunk refers to a sort of style based upon Victorian-age science fiction. It's Jules Verne-esque stuff, full of brass and airships and goggles and proto-industrial tech. Not to brag, but I was steampunk WAY before steampunk was cool. I was drawn as a young'un, totally mesmerized, to the 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea attraction in Disney's Tomorrowland. I mean, it was a submarine that looked like a big, metal fish. And you could see all the bolts! I loved blimps and airships. I had a Goodyear Blimp model in my room. I wore goggles and funky hats whenever I could get my hands on them. Back then I was weird. Today, it's a whole subculture and people are going to a lot of expense and trouble to look like I wanted to when I was 8. Jen has designed a whole show to fit my elementary school imagination, and I couldn't be happier to be a part of it.

3. The Costumes

I'll let them speak for themselves.

4. Milky White

Into The Woods features as a sort of character Jack's cow, Milky White. Milky White has been portrayed in different productions using everything from a big prop cow on wheels to an actor in a cow costume. Jen has chosen the middle road, an actor carrying a cow prop.  It's a great idea as it gives the audience a cow but also allows an actor to portray the cow's, well, emotions. The cow goes through a lot. And the actor Jen chose, a teenager named Chase Costen, has totally embraced his bovine side. In rehearsals, I've seen him react with his face and body in logical ways to what the cow is doing and seeing. When they line up to do vocal warm-ups, Chase brings his cow. He gets that they are one piece, not a boy carrying a prop. It's a little thing, but it really tickles me.

That's about all I feel I can say right now. We build the set next Saturday and I am sure I will be adding that to my list. But I don't want to give too much away. You'll have to come see for yourself. Find out all about it here. You'll not be disappointed