Theatre Horizon opened its 15th season with a revival concert reading of their 2015 production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods. The bubbly concert coincided with the passing of the artistic director’s torch to Nell Bang-Jensen—a cheery start to what audiences can hope will be a long tenure at the helm.
After ‘once upon a time’
Sondheim and Lapine’s musical adaptation and examination of favorite childhood fairytales by the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault has been delighting audiences since it premiered on Broadway in 1987. Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and other stories are interwoven with humor and plenty of life lessons. The premise is as clever as the music is pleasing to the ear, and it is no surprise that Theatre Horizon would use this as the vehicle to launch this milestone season.
Like any good fairytale, we begin with a “once upon a time,” a curse that must be reversed, and characters longing and wishing for things that are just out of their grasp—a better life, money, a child. Everyone journeys into the woods, and (no surprise) they encounter twists and turns that make them different, for the better, once they come out the other side. But act 2 makes us ask ourselves: even if we get what we want, can we ever truly be satisfied? And if fulfilling a dream can’t save us (or comes with dire consequences), what’s to stop us from feeling alone and lost for good?
Theatre Horizon co-founder Matthew Decker resumed his place as director for the staged reading, with many of his former cast joining to reprise the roles they held just a few years ago. Translating a fully staged production to books-in-hands and music stands is a difficult enterprise. Decker and the cast maintain the magic of the musical, but not without a few bumps along the way. The opening number, where we meet our vast number of major and minor players, was laced with tangled freneticism as actors bounced all over stage to the different music stands—sometimes establishing a sense of place adds more complications than it solves. But after the initial bumpy standography, Decker’s intimate knowledge of the musical came through the balanced stage pictures, and there was just enough blocking that the music stands seemed to disappear.
The returning cast members revisited their roles with a comfortable familiarity and enthusiasm, and the newcomers added a spark to the ensemble. Liz Filios was luminous as a warm yet indecisive Cinderella, whose grief over her mother’s death and a desire for another life away from her stepmother and stepsisters pushes her into the arms of a philandering prince. Steve Pacek captivated as the Baker, a sweet yet sheepish man bumbling his way to fatherhood. A particularly winning Jack Henry brought a charming guilelessness to the young man who climbs a beanstalk and tussles with giants, and appropriate haughtiness as the Steward to Cinderella’s prince. Horizon founder and outgoing artistic director Erin Reilly made a fun surprise appearance as the giantess who seeks revenge on Jack for killing her husband.
Into the Woods is a musical that requires a certain grandeur, be it through production value or performance. But staged readings, by virtue of the stripped-down form, can often obfuscate a show’s potential instead of giving us a taste of what’s possible. However, Sondheim’s music and lyrics sparkle even in a bare-bones delivery style, so it is a fine choice for a concert.
Continuing in this vein, Theatre Horizon will be mounting another concert reading later this season: Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s boppy comedy-horror, Little Shop of Horrors. The theater may be heading into new territory with Bang-Jensen, but it’s also keeping a firm hold onto known crowd pleasers as they run into the wilderness.
What, When, Where
Into the Woods in concert. By Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. Directed by Matthew Decker. Through September 29, 2019, at Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb Street, Norristown, Pennsylvania. (610) 283-2230 or theatrehorizon.org.
Theatre Horizon is fully wheelchair-accessible, and you can purchase ADA-compliant seating online, by calling the box office, or emailing [email protected]. However, there are no ADA parking spaces in Theatre Horizon’s private lot.