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Imagine Productions Takes on Sondheim’s Much-Loved Into the Woods

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Imagine Productions Takes on Sondheim’s Much-Loved Into the WoodsPhotos courtesy Imagine Productions.
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Imagine Productions present a production of Stephen Sondheim’s most accessible musical Into the Woods (with book by James Lapine), directed by Brandon Boring. I caught a dress rehearsal early in the week and spoke with the director.

It’s not fair to fully review a performance the point of which is to work through technical issues, so my comments will be about specific elements I’d like to highlight. I will say, with multiple rehearsals to go, it was much farther along and cleaner than most shows I’ve seen at this part of the process. If they deliver on the promise of the rehearsal I saw, Boring’s Into the Woods will be a must-see for any Sondheim fan or newcomer.

Into the Woods was the the show that made me realize the potential of musical theatre,” said Boring. “I did shows in high school — Bye Bye Birdie — then my Senior year, my band director had us watch the original Broadway [PBS] recording. And I went, ‘Oh! That’s what theatre is!’ I was having fun [before], but then I saw there was something there. ‘I want to keep doing this stuff.’”

Soon after High School, Into the Woods called him back.

“The year after I graduated, my high school did a production, and I came down on a break to see it. I saw it Friday night. Saturday, I got a call that their Steward is sick and cannot go on, and [the director] is like, ‘I don’t have anyone.’ All her men were already in the show. ‘Could you come here and do the Steward in two hours?’ I thought, ‘It’s a small enough part, I know the music already.’ So I was back there, reading the script while they built me a costume. Then I was the Narrator/Mysterious Man at a production [in Columbus] a few years ago.”

“This is the third show I’ve directed for [Imagine],” Boring continued, “after Urinetown and Lippa’s The Wild Party. Into the Woods is the show for me. To get my chance to put my stamp on it has been a great joy; having a hand in all the pies. I love all the characters, but I’m never going to be the Baker’s Wife, I’m never going to be the Witch. As the director, I get to work with [those characters.]”

The strong, wide-ranging cast incorporates faces familiar to many Columbus theatregoers. They include Nicholas Van Atta, recently in Gallery Player’s beautiful Falsettos, as The Baker; Ashley Woodard whose credits include Perfect Arrangement and Romance/Romance, as The Baker’s Wife; and faces new to me doing stunning work in key roles, including Joel Derkin, as the Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince, and Johanna Whetstone as The Witch.

“We had amazing turnout [for the auditions],” Boring said. “We had 105, 106 people audition, which for a community show like this is unheard of. turned away leads in other plays in town for call-backs. [The cast is] a strong group that all mesh well together; with an ensemble show like this, it all has to be cohesive. I have people I’ve worked with before, old friends, and people I’d never heard of before they walked into the audition.”

This Into the Woods makes the best use of the smaller theatre in CPAC I’ve ever seen for a cast of this size. The set threads the needle between the glamor and magic of the show and a minimal grittiness that keeps the focus on the actors and the action.

“I didn’t want to do a small set,” Boring said. “I call [what we did] ‘immersion on a budget.’ I said, ‘I want to build a forest clearing in the middle of the theater and do a show in it.’”

That strong use of the space extends to the sound. Often, sound issues plague the smaller room, but even sitting to the side, I heard everything; the sound is rich with nuance. Boring talked about how he and the cast achieved that clarity.

“With the space being so small and the cast full of powerful voices, we made the decision to go mic-less,” he said. “We told them, ‘We’re going with a small orchestra, you should be able to rise above,’ and they’ve been doing a great job.”

The six-piece chamber orchestra under the baton of Music Director Jonathan Collura also deserves much credit for the sound. Piano, two strings, one trumpet, one flute, and upright bass balances the lushness and drama while leaving space for those voices.

Sometimes with a show a critic has this much affection for, that fondness can turn into baggage, but Imagine’s Into the Woods took me back to the same place of childlike delight as my first encounter. I found tears coming to my eyes at exactly the places they should have been.

Into the Woods runs through Feb. 2 with performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 31, and 3 p.m. Sunday, January 27 at Columbus Performing Arts Center. For tickets and more info, visit imaginecolumbus.org.

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