Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Into the Woods
Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's review of West Side Story

Vaibu Mohan
Photo by Heather Butcher/Desert Stages Theatre
The intricacies of Stephen Sondheim's sensational score and James Lapine's exceptional book for their musical Into the Woods present plenty of challenges, even for the most gifted of actors and singers. So it's refreshing to see a talented group of teenagers attempt and succeed in tackling one of the cleverest musicals ever written. Desert Stages Theatre's production, composed almost entirely of teens, is a solid and successful take on this musical that seamlessly weaves together familiar fairy tales that we all grew up with.

The classic stories of Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel combine with the book and score to form a show that has just as many comical moments as it does reflective ones. Sondheim and Lapine also created an entirely original fairy tale, the story of a Baker and his Wife who are desperate to have a child, as the way to bring all of these famous stories together.

The Baker and his Wife live right next door to a Witch. She tells the couple that she placed a curse on their family and that is why they are unable to have a child. If they wish to have the curse reversed there is a potion that is made up of four items they can bring to her and the curse will be lifted. When the couple set off to the woods to get the items they meet other fairy-tale characters in the woods—Jack on his way to market to sell his cow, Little Red Riding Hood on her way to her grandmother's house, Rapunzel who lives in a tower in the woods, and Cinderella who is on her way back from the ball. They, and the audience, quickly realize that the four required items are related to these other characters, another creative way for Sondheim and Lapine to combine the stories into one adventure. Sondheim and Lapine also crafted a second act that shows what happens after "happily ever after" with the humor and happiness in the first act having serious repercussions.

Director Lisa Barton does an exceptional job directing her youth cast. Though four of the larger roles are double cast, she hasn't added in any additional ensemble members, and several play more than one part. This keeps the stage lean and allows the cast to show what they are capable of. The fact that there is virtually no set doesn't detract from the staging and Barton uses all four entry ways into the space wisely, which provides a fast pace for the story.

The cast never gets hung up on any of the many overlapping and intricate parts of Sondheim's score, which is a testament to them and music director Elizabeth Spencer. The only downsides are a few vocal moments where high or sustained notes aren't quite hit or held that long and a few actors who aren't quite on the same level vocal wise as the rest of the cast. Also, a few of the many humorous lines are too quickly rushed, or delivered too seriously, thus losing a few of the punch lines.

Besides those quibbles, Barton's cast is very good, with each doing exceptional work in creating realistic characters, all of whom learn and grow throughout the show. Eric Williams and Greta Perlmutter are very good as the Baker and the Baker's Wife. They bicker realistically but also nicely project the love the characters have for each other and both portray the changes their characters go through exceptionally well. Perlmutter's performance of "Moments in the Woods," which shows a moment of conflict her character is faced with, is delivered with much thought and care while Williams' "No More" is extremely moving.

Camden Wawro makes an exceptional Cinderella, full of heart and well-meaning, and she delivers a lovely and lively version of her solo song "On the Steps of the Palace." As the Witch, Vaibu Mohan is crafty, menacing, and slightly scary, yet also stunningly glamorous once her character experiences a transformation. Mohan's vocals are very good, with a well-delivered "Last Midnight" and one of the fastest versions of the "Witch's Rap" I've ever heard. Alyssa Granger is a fun and feisty Little Red Riding Hood while Hayden Skaggs makes a stellar Jack and his performance of "Giants in the Sky" is excellent. Skaggs, Williams, Wawro, Granger and Mohan also deliver an exceptional "Your Fault" that is perfectly staged by Barton.

Dillan Butler, at 22 the only non-teenager in the cast, has the dual role of the Narrator and the Mysterious Man and he brings wit and emotion to both parts. Matthew Villarreal and Brandon Wyatt are appropriately condescending as the two Princes. Their delivery of "Agony" is a crowd pleaser and Ali Giordano has perfect comic timing as Jack's frustrated mother.

Aurelie Flores' costume designs are lovely and lush, composed of varied fabrics and patterns that evoke the fairy-tale period perfectly. Barton directs with constant in motion and Matt Stetler's lighting seamlessly helps provide the appropriate focal point for each moment of the show.

Combining well known fairy-tale characters in a single story in which the plot elements of each story build on the others is a very creative idea. But what is most ingenious is adding to this adventure the emotional element of what happens "ever after." Sondheim and Lapine are clearly saying to be careful what you wish for as all wishes that come true may not bring the expected happy results.

With sure-footed direction and a very talented cast, DST's production of this beloved musical doesn't miss a step in delivering what the writers put forth, presenting a production that is simply enchanting.

The Desert Stages production of Into the Woods runs through August 7th, 2016, with performances at 4720 N. Scottsdale Road in Scottsdale. Tickets are available at or by phone at (480) 483-1664.

Director: Lisa Barton
Music Director: Elizabeth Spencer
Set Design: Lisa Barton & Matt Stetler
Lighting & Sound Design: Matt Stetler
Costume Designers: Aurelie Flores
Props: Lisa Barton, Brent Coatney, Lizzie Davis
Make-up Design: Spencer Claus

Cast: (In alphabetical order. Four of the roles are double cast and the cast below is who performed at the performance I attended)
Katherine Baier - Cinderella's Mother/ Granny
Dillan Butler - Narrator/Mysterious Man
Paige Corbin - Florinda/Sleeping Beauty
McKenna Dersam - Lucinda/Snow White
Caitlyn Freeman - Rapunzel
Ali Giordano - Jack's Mother
Alyssa Granger - Little Red Riding Hood
Anand Khalsa - Steward/Cinderella's Father
Vaibu Mohan - Witch
Greta Perlmutter - Baker's Wife
Hayden Skaggs - Jack
Jaquelyn Swartz - Cinderella's Step Mother
Matthew Villarreal- Cinderella's Prince
Camden Wawro - Cinderella
Eric Williams- Baker
Brandon Wyatt - Wolf/ Rapunzel's Prince

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