Caroline Buckingham Christopher King

Vancouver-based Fighting Chance Productions (FCP) lavishes comical touches on composer Stephen Sondheim and book author James Lapine’s collaborative musical Into the Woods, now on at the Jericho Arts Centre.

While the entire play is essentially a mash-up of several serious Grimms’ fairy tales, the central storyline revolves around a baker and his wife who are childless by the curse of a wicked witch.

Jason Cook, Elise Sherwood
[Jason Cook, Elise Sherwood]

The familiar tales of Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Rapunzel are ensnarled as subplots in their quest to break the spell. 

Although the play wrestles with ideals of morals, choices pitted against consequences, and control versus trust, its main fulcrum pivots on relationships: filial, marital, and social. A curveball is thrown in Act II of Into the Woods as it takes a stab at what happens to the fairy tale maidens and heroes after their “happily ever after” is achieved. 

Olivia Lang, Sarah Wolfman-Robichaud
[Olivia Lang, Sarah Wolfman-Robichaud]

The melodies warn, “Wishes come true, not free; Careful the spell you cast; Sometimes a spell may last; Past what you can see; And turn against you.”
Sondheim’s compositions are renowned and beloved for their complexity. The Grimm Brothers’ tales, in their original form, are known to be dark and didactic. These elements intertwine for a musical that is imaginative and entertaining but also severely demanding, even for professional productions. Director Ryan Mooney has aptly chosen to stage a playful version on a slenderized budget, which makes for excellent family and community-oriented theatre. 

Into the Woods is very much a fairy tale for adults, however Mooney’s amusing version makes the show thoroughly enjoyable for youngsters, as evidenced by the many joyous giggles throughout the evening. They may not immediately understand the dark morals unfolding, but as the last song of the play cautions, “children will see and learn; children may not obey, but children will listen.”

Olivia Lang, Zach Wolfman
[Olivia Lang, Zach Wolfman]
Adding to the whimsy is Eleanor Gibson’s minimalist set and Linda Begg and Eugene Hui’s charming pop-up props. The main stage is a stack of story books centered inside the Jericho Arts Centre’s small, intimate quarters, with the audience surrounding all four sides. Some pyrotechnics, fog, and rope gimmicks (Andrew Chu) complete the fairy fantasy. 

For a production as grandiose as Into the Woods, I found the space a bit cramped and the action overwhelming. Multiple onstage characters, multiple storylines but only a few meters of separation diverted my focus and the illusion suffered. There were also numerous audio problems, quite distracting for a musical. 

The witch’s speech during the opening act is central to the plot because she explains how the baker could reverse his infertility curse. Unfortunately, I missed hearing most of it because her mic was not working properly. 

It was also difficult to hear the narrator as he progresses the storyline. Fortunately, the dedication of the enthusiastic cast conveyed the ideas sufficiently to help me fill in the gaps. 

Jennifer Suratos Sarah Wolfman-Robichaud
[L to R: Jennifer Suratos, Sarah Wolfman-Robichaud]
The cast of 18 consist of promising newcomers (and zealous troupers) with FCP. Music director Christopher King takes to the stage as the baker in this production, alongside real-life spouse, Jennifer Suratos as his plucky wife. Caroline Buckingham plays a sincere, albeit clumsy Cinderella. The musical training of these three are evident as they belt out their tunes.

During intermission, unanimous bathroom chatter concluded that velvet-voiced baritone Jason Cook hijacked the show. His dual roles as the lascivious wolf and the ravishing prince made ladies, young and old, swoon each time he tossed his luscious mane of hair or shot a cockeyed grin.

Jennifer Suratos, Christopher King, Ryan Lino
[Jennifer Suratos, Christopher King, Ryan Lino]
One of the advantages of small, modest stages is that the audience can fully appreciate the facial expressions and gestures of the actors. Henry Beasley does not disappoint as the goofy, naïve, and forlorn Jack. This young talent is very stage-aware, as he adjusts his voice once realizing his mic has gone out in the middle of his solo number. Ryan Lino is equally ardent and spunky as Jack’s sidekick, Milky White, while faceless and clad in a ridiculous cow costume (Linda Leong Sum). 

The closing number gets a clean, sleek finish when the dead and departed characters return in a black and white costume montage. 
Given its limited resources, FCP decently tackles Sondheim and Lapine’s complex musical. Although the audio and performances were at times helter-skelter, the show has a quaint charm that makes for a fun evening the entire family can enjoy. Into the Woods runs until May 16, but don’t dawdle — several shows are already sold out.

About Our Contributor Cora Li

Cora Li

Cora dabbles in arts, technology, food, and travel. She loves that Vancouver offers a vast playground for exploring all of her passions. Cora’s most memorable job to date was working with VANOC during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

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