I went with jaundiced eye and requisite skepticism to a musical on the UC campus Friday night. The directors had no previous experience and the cast were largely not even theatre majors. Once into the Lower Level of the Cesar Chavez Student Union cati-corner to Zellerbach, I noticed the lobby was in need of a paint job and the acoustic ceiling tile were stained; short-budgeted community colleges I’ve taught at looked better than this. However, it was sold out. Friday night in April with little to do? Lots of friends and family of the cast attending?
But once the overture began, my vision clarified and the astonishment began. They were a true ensemble and let the play—this very special play— be the star, and brought it to life.
Imagine a world of your fairy-tale favorites in a cross-over play where Beanstalk Jack, Little Red Riding Hood, her Grandmother, the Wolf, Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, the Witch from next door, and even two Prince Charmings (who happen to be brothers) all interact. Add a Baker and his Wife, and the witty, poignant rhymes of the most excellent of lyricists. Have the characters sing grownup songs about their desires, ennui, dreams, dissatisfaction, the fleetingness of life, and all the existential fears imaginable including the penultimate one of the necessity to grow up. Draw freely from Bruno Bettelheim’s seminal psychoanalytic work “The Uses of Enchantment” about the function of fairy tales in our psychosocial growth. It is, of course, INTO THE WOODS, the most produced musical of Stephen Sondheim for which he wrote both music and lyrics, with book by James Lapine. It’s an intellectual’s musical and thus very appropriate for the University of California, Berkeley, but one whose words may resonate in your mind in the middle of the night like no other.
Presented by BareStage Productions, a student musical group at UC Berkeley, it’s co-directed by undergrads Nick Trengove and Chelsea Unzner. The musical director is Dr. Mark Sumner who also directs the UC Choral Ensembles. It plays in the Choral Ensemble Room in the basement of the Cesar Chavez Student Center.
This is the 23-song, non-Bowdlerized version that includes all the sexuality of the 1987 original production before producers realized that they could double attendance if they deemphasized the libidinal and cashed in on the family factor. The original brought Tony Awards for Best Actress to Joanna Gleason and for Best Score and Best Book beating out “Phantom of the Opera,” as well as the indelible performance of Bernadette Peters—that premier interpreter of Sondheim's work—as the transformative witch. The 2002 production was purified and added Three Little Pigs and some songs that were in the original done at San Diego’s Old Globe, but none of that in this production.
By interweaving dialogue and song, Sondheim bypasses that contrived convention of the musical that goes: talk, talk, music swells, song, applause, more talk; that particular convention breaks the dramatic spell and thereby makes it difficult for some folks to endure musicals. But Sondheim keeps his works bopping seamlessly along.
There are two acts in the play: the quest and the consequences. The First Act seems a work in itself since it comes in at 90 minutes and resolves all conflicts happy, or so we think. The First Act is about wishing and dreaming and hoping and taking the chance of going you-know-where. The Second Act is what happens after you’ve got it. The First Act is fraught with peril and the questions that come along with the questing. Freudian wish-fulfillment is rife throughout. The Second Act is what happens when Things Fall Apart through loss, reversals, uprooting, death, infidelity, disaster, disillusionment, and reaping what one has sown with the seeds—or beans—of one’s own undoing. It’s about stooping and building them up with worn out tools, about new couplings out of necessity or need, replete with maternal recriminations (blaming Mom), depression, connubial disappointment, blame, maternal recriminations (Mom blaming you), and the spectrum of realistic responses to the vagaries of “the journey” replacing the happily ever after—“which may last for a week.” It’s about us.
It runs three hours but they pass like no time since every moment is filled with wit and story and depth. When I say run, it is probably very much like that for the actor/singers since it comes fast and furious. It’s a marathon-like performance, and they never miss a beat.
Directors Nick Trengove and Chelsea Unzer made impeccable casting choices. The performers are close enough in talent and age to believably come from the same world, and each believably looks the part for which they are cast. The actors are impossibly fresh-faced and dauntingly talented for non-pros. The directing team employed a lot of Broadway staging choices which is not a bad way to go. They keep the traffic moving fluidly—and with 19 actors on and off and on again in a 20-odd foot wide semicircle of a stage that wasn’t all that deep, this is no mean feat.
While the ensemble predominates, there are some performances that invite comment.
The Witch (Marisa Conroy) is the architect of the story, and sets things into motion like a malicious Prospero. The witch rules the play as the complicated Machiavel, getting most of the good lines and a lot of center-stage songs like the villain always gets. Ms. Conroy must have grown up listening to Sondheim because she understands the nuances, her alto –with some good high notes—is tempered perfectly to the part, and her gestures are expressively witch-like yet do not seem contrived. She makes her important transition most believable, and is an extraordinary talent.
For those of you who haven’t seen or heard it, or to remind and regale those of you who have, here is a little taste of Sondheim’s lyrics that can make you giddy but make you stifle the laugh lest you miss the next line. The following excerpt also gives you a taste of the slippery and ingenious facility with which Lapine interfolds the stories. But first, the necessary set-up: the Baker and his wife are childless. In fairy-tale fashion, the wherefore of the barrenness is revealed, and, as always, is connected to the sins of the father which, of course, leads into a quest which will, of course, lead the baker into the woods.
[Spoken] “NARRATOR: The old enchantress told the couple she had placed a spell on their house.
BAKER: What spell?
WITCH: In the past, when your mother was with child, she developed an unusual appetite. She took one look at my beautiful garden and told your father that what she wanted more than anything in the world was [sung in a syncopated fashion:]‘Greens, greens and nothing but greens….’ He said, ‘All right,’ but it wasn't, quite, 'cause I caught him in the autumn in my garden one night! He was robbing me, raping me, rooting through my rutabaga, raiding my arugula and ripping up my rampion (my champion! my favorite!). I should have laid a spell on him right there, could have changed him into stone or a dog or a chair…but I let him have the rampion—I'd lots to spare. In return, however, I said, ‘Fair is fair: you can let me have the baby that your wife will bear. And we'll call it square.’
BAKER: [spoken] I had a brother?
WITCH: No. But you had a sister.
NARRATOR: But the witch refused to tell him anymore of his sister. Not even that her name was Rapunzel.”
(The Witch’s whining always reminds me of the complaints of the Haves against the Have-Nots even after they foreclose on them.)
The characters are exemplars of pop psychology. Cinderella’s character is “The Good Child” as her lyrics reflect: “Mother said be good, father said be nice, that was always their advice. What's the good of being good if everyone is blind and you're always left behind?” Often, the simplicity of the lyrics and immediacy of the rhymes befits the child-like flavor of the premise but from these Sondheim squeezes much angst. Since the words are so simple to digest in this form, as soon as we hear them we feel the bittersweet rush of the complications of life.
Tinley Ireland (Cinderella) is a tad older and taller than the other ingénues, but with her young face she fits in fine. Her soprano is well-trained, and she understands the balance of irony and heartfelt emotion needed in Sondheim. She captivates us with her naturalness and we come to see the story through her eyes. She is, after all, the commoner raised to royalty, but she never loses the common touch; Princess Diana, but a survivor.
Consider, too, Little Red Riding Hood’s self-bluffing pep-talk prep: “The way is clear, the light is good, I have no fear, nor no one should. The woods are just trees, the trees are just wood. And who can tell what's waiting on the journey? Into the woods to bring some bread to Granny who is sick in bed. Never can tell what lies ahead. For all that I know, she's already dead.” Long before there were lost children on milk cartons, in the time when the woods were right next door, children took a wrong turn and ran into the rapacious devourer.
Jaclyn Friedenthal’s portrayal of LRR starts her out as a ditzy kid with baloney-curls in a short red skirt and heels and lots of wolf-attracting sex appeal, then, in the aftermath of her trauma down the gullet of the wolf, turns into a knife-wielding leather-wearing psychopath. Her loss of innocence is reflected in her new found cynicism and wryness. Her voice is perfectly Sondheim, much of which is speech-level singing with the expectation of finishing on a surprise high-note.
The cow Milky White (Taylor Hickok) is adorable. Ms. Hickok and the director(s) knew that a cow isn’t really all that lovable—I mean, we eat them—so she infused it with just enough puppy-dog to make her palatable, er, lovable. She is a flexible and naturally expressive physical comedienne in her mute bovine role; then, in a surprising cameo as Cinderella’s deceased mother-in-the-tree, she knocks us out with her soprano.
Amy Henry’s (Rapunzel) lovely blonde homage to courtly love as the lady-in-the-tower is enchanting with her high haunting trilling, and later movingly upsetting in the honesty of her Paris Hilton-like melt-down. Her relationship with her abducting, boundary-crossing mother-figure (The Witch) is intriguing and disturbing. Bring your DSM-IV.
The Prince Charming Bros. (Nicholas Weinbach and Patrick Stelmach) are played with Buzz Lightyear insouciance and the requisite golden-boy “I am the Prince” cluelessness, They make a very nearly slapstick, funny duo in their “Agony.” Weinbach has a wrap-itself-around-you baritone and carries Stelmach in their duets, but Stelmach holds his own in the characterization and together they play well as royal sibs. Weinbach also plays the Wolf as a leather-jacketed Mohawk-wearing rapist, but seems uncomfortable with the sexual aspect, resorting to overblown hip-thrusting and behavior more suggestive of “Twilight” vampirism rather than rapacious devouring.
Cinderella’s Stepmother (Karen Scruggs) and sisters (Sabrina Wenske & Meghan Cleary) do a great 3Stooges-like trio, with Scruggs being a ringer in looks, glamour, and attitude for Kristen Johnson’s “3rdRock” Lt. Sally. Andrew Cummings changes modes easily between the extreme characters of the Mysterious Stranger singing pleasingly and fulfilling a difficult role of an old man and Narrator who provides the through-line admirably and with proper dignity.
The orchestra is exceptional. With a sure hand, Dr. Mark Sumner, who also leads the UC Choral Ensemble, conducts the twenty players through this complicated score that includes lots of sound effects. The orchestra never overwhelms the singing. The orchestra is located offstage right; I looked for, but didn’t see, a monitor for the singers to see the conductor, an impressive coordination.
The lighting is done with pie-pan floods and track lighting, but convincingly isolates the action and sets the mood for each scene. Costumes fit the players and the action, and are appropriately fairy-tale without drawing attention; the stand-out is the great black witches-wear cape lined with the same green fabric as the gown underneath; the costumer pieced together a good panoply borrowing broadly from Oakwood Country School. The scenery is eight or nine cut-out very tall trees, and interestingly painted two-dimensional hut, hearth, and bakery, and a very well-placed netting of leaves as a canopy over this little world.
There are 100 seats and all on plastic chairs. I have not much padding back there, but I was so taken with the performances that I only noticed it fleetingly. Take a pillow with you. Top price admission is $12 USD, and the evening would be well worth multiples of that. Your heart will be touched, and you’ll go home happy.
BareStage’s mission is devoted to the cultivation of original work and new, rarely performed musicals and to the development of theatrical creativity for students who aren’t necessarily in the theatre program. This semester they are undertaking a talent show, this not-so-rarely-performed major production, and student written one-acts. They are part of the Student Musical Activities which is part of Cal Performances, which also funds Marching Band, Jazz Ensembles, and Chorale Ensembles.
The university’s theatre department offers an open casting policy for its productions with auditions open to all students regardless of major and even to members of the community. But the reality is that the overwhelming majority of the roles go to theatre students, which seems appropriate, and there aren’t that many productions. The intellectual and socially conscious offerings of the UCB Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies (TDPS) department limit practicing the “tits and glitz” side of performing. This year their major theatrical offerings were one acts by Ionesco, Beckett, Pinter, Gertrude Stein, Maria Irene Fornes, and Suzan-Lori Parks, then Naomi Wallace’s play about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911, and a dance/music/theater mash-up by SF Choreographer Joe Goode about gender identity and privilege; plus there are a couple of small black-box departmental productions. Not exactly mainstream fare like “The Importance of Being Earnest” or “City of Angels,” which are both recent productions by BareStage.
The BareStage group seems to pick up the slack and give a barebones venue to those students who are studying something else but still want to perform. Half the cast studies something other than theatre, about half the cast have a minor in it, and a couple of actors and one of the directors are theatre majors.
AND WHILE WE’RE ON THE SUBJECT: I’ve often worried whether going to college to mainly study theatre as an undergrad has the potential to limit one’s education. Great actors often study other things: Jack Lemmon was president of the Hasty Pudding Club at Harvard but graduated with a degree in War Service Sciences; Edward Norton graduated in History from Yale where he acted with Paul Giamatti who was studying English there. It’s good to know history and literature if you are an actor rather than trying to ingest all the background information while you are simultaneously trying to learn your lines. At some conservatories within academia, 80% of the credits are singing, acting, and dancing with only a smattering of liberal arts. Note that the TDPS department at UCB emphasizes scholarship and communication skills viewed in particular through the lens of race, ethnicity, and multiculturalism, along with foundational stagecraft and production skills.
It could be that a baccalaureate in acting is no indicator of success: a little research showed that of the Best Actor Oscar-winners in the last forty years, eleven never matriculated, twelve dropped out, and of the eight actors that graduated only six majored in drama! However, most all studied at an acting school like Lee Strasberg or The Neighborhood Playhouse; name schools like NYU’s Tisch and the grad schools of Yale and Juilliard help disproportionately. Musical theatre Tony winners, on the other hand, often graduate with a BA or BFA in that major, probably because very specific and diverse skills are required.
To find out more about BareStage Productions go to barestage.berkeley.edu Once there, click on the BareStage logo to hear a spooky whispered intro and be admitted to their labyrinthine website.
INTO THE WOODS plays this Friday & Saturday evenings 4/23 & 4/24 at 8pm, with final performance Sunday matinee 4/25 at 2 pm. Tickets at: tickets.berkeley.edu or (510) 642-3880.
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; book by James Lapine; directed by Nick Trengove and Chelsea Unzner; music direction by Mark Sumner; sets by Brian Bostwick; lighting by Nagisa Kodama; sound design by Ryan Abrams and Jeff Samuelson; costumes by Allison Fenner; executive producer Iris Kokish; production photos by Brandon Thomas. Produced by BareStage (Sabrina Yessayan, managing director) under the aegis of Student Musical Activities, Cal Performances, University of California, Berkeley.
WITH: Andrew Cummings (Narrator/Mysterious Man), Tinley Ireland (Cinderella), Alex Lee (Jack), Emma Newman (Jack’s Mother), Dominique Brillon (Baker’s Wife), Matt Stevens (Baker), Karen Scruggs (Cinderella’s Stepmother), Sabrina Wenske (Florinda), Meghan Cleary (Lucinda), Jaclyn Friedenthal (Little Red Riding Hood), Marisa Conroy (Witch), Taylor Hickok (Cinderella’s Mother/Milky White/Giant), Nicholas Weinbach (Wolf/Rapunzel’s Prince), Michelle McDowell (Granny, Amy Henry (Rapunzel), Patrick Stelmach (Cinderella’s Prince), Matthew Thomas (Steward). Alex Bonte (Harp/Cinderella’s Father), Vahishta Vafadari (Snow White/Cow #2).
John McMullen has an MFA in directing from Carnegie Mellon and has taught and directed there and at local colleges and theatres in the Bay Area; it seems he is now a free-lance theatre critic. Comments/contact at EyeFromTheAisle@gmail.com