Don’t expect happily ever after with ‘Into the Woods’

Courtesy Photo The cast of Thunder Bay Theatre’s “Into the Woods” poses at a recent rehearsal. Pictured in front, from left to right, are Jordan Hand and Lucas Moquin. In the middle row, from left to right, are Charity Means, Karis Mitchell, Samantha Atkinson, Tafadzwa Deiner, Caprice Green, Desi Rodriguez and Emily Ahrens. In back, from left to right, are Jared Garner, Wesley Hodges, Annika Andersson, Raymond Cronley and Sarah Matlow. Missing from the photo are Ryan Heath, Carson Heath, Abby Middlebrook, Thomas Jore, Dani Losinski and Olivia Losinski.

ALPENA — If you like predictable fairy tales with zipped-up happy endings, then come to this play … and leave at intermission.

If you like delving deep into dark drama, stick around until the bitter end of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” at Thunder Bay Theatre.

“Everything will turn out fine in the end,” says Cinderella’s stepmother, to which the Baker replies, “Not always.”

Those unfamiliar with Sondheim’s work may at first be taken aback by the cacophony of chaotic sounds played live onstage by the actors, led by musical director David Delano. While the live music adds to the turbulent momentum as the play spirals deeper and deeper into the forest, it is sometimes hard to hear the actors’ lines over the horns, since there is no orchestra pit. As the story advances, however, the disjointed sounds provide the perfect backdrop to a tale that is far from harmonious.

It starts with a baker and his wife who cannot have their own children unless a curse is lifted, but in order to do so, they must retrieve a strange list of items for a witch, who can then return their fertility to them, and return herself to the young beauty she once was. They seek a red cape, a gold slipper, a lock of corn-colored hair and a white cow. On the course of their journey into the woods, the baker and his wife encounter — you guessed it — a young girl in a red cape heading to visit her sick grandma, a wolf, a princess in gold slippers running from her prince, a tall spacey kid with a cow who can be swayed by “magic beans,” and a very long-haired blonde beauty locked in a high tower.

It’s not all danger and darkness in the woods, as two characters provide a spastic element of gut-busting comedy in awkward bursts throughout the first act: Lucas Moquin as the Mysterious Man, hobbling and tumbling around, jumping out from behind trees, sneaking up on people to give them creepy advice, then scurrying away cackling with insane glee; and Sarah Matlow as the Witch, who has a similar demeanor, all hunched over with a gangly wart-ridden nose and a blaring, pitchy voice that would startle even a Zen master.

As far as voices go, Matlow can do it all, from nails on a chalkboard to a beautiful songbird, and she’s surrounded by a stellar cast, all who have clearly mastered the vocal arts. Desi Rodriguez as Rapunzel is a notable soprano, with a voice as soothing as a flowing waterfall, pouring down from the tower she is locked in.

After Act I is all buttoned up, we reenter the theatre for Act II, which aptly begins with “Agony,” an entertaining duet by the two princes. Then we open our eyes to the darkness. We start to see that getting what you want isn’t always easy, and it doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness either.

How many rules would you bend to get what you think you want, only to find you can’t be truly happy until you want what you already have?

Themes of anger, loss, death, guilt, infidelity, blaming, disappointment, self-loathing, running from problems, and blurred lines of morality come crashing down in different ways on each character. Some are literally crushed by giants, leaving the others to figure out how to carry on in a shattered world devoid of their loved ones. But those who remain provide a new kind of love, adapting into a resilient community of friendship, unity and acceptance.

TBT’s cast of mainly professional actors, and some young local actors, includes: Raymond Cronley as Jack, Emily Ahrens as Little Red, Jordan Hand as the Baker, Annika Anderssen as the Baker’s Wife, Sarah Matlow as the Witch, Charity Means as Cinderella, Wesley Hodges as Cindy’s Prince, Tafadzwa Diener as Cindy’s Stepmother/Cindy’s Mother, Caprice Green as Florinda, Karis Mitchell as Lucinda, Thomas Jore as Cindy’s Father, Desi Rodriguez as Rapunzel, Jared Garner as Rap’s Prince/the Wolf, Ryan Heath as the Steward, Lucas Moquin as the Mysterious Man/Narrator, Abby Middlebrook as Jack’s Mother, Samantha Atkinson as Milky White/Granny, Carson Heath as Little Boy, Dani Losinski as Snow White, and Olivia Losinski as Sleeping Beauty.

Worth noting is Atkinson’s performance as Milky White, a cow that says nothing verbally, but says everything with her facial expression. She behaves just like a cow, with zero reactions to anything happening around her. And with all the chaotic energy onstage in this play, that’s a tough role!

Directed by Jeffrey Mindock, “Into The Woods” features musical direction by Delano, scenic design by Bridgid Burge, costume design by Erin Wiley, lighting design by Chris Riley, technical direction and stage management by Tabitha Camp, and choreography by Adrian Alexander.

The instruments onstage include flute, clarinet, violin, saxophone, trumpet, French horn, tuba and keyboard. Tim Burns plays the French horn beautifully, and although at times the score calls for odd beeps and honks resembling a car alarm or a gaggle of geese, every instrument is played well, with seamless transitions from actor to musician and back.

Albeit well done, the music is about as comforting as crawling into burlap sheets, but that’s the point. “Into the Woods” isn’t a stroll through the park. It’s dirty, it’s dark, and it’s trying to tell you something. So if it has to shout to get your attention, it will.

Those seeking a magical feel-good Cinderella story where everyone rides off into the sunset smiling from ear to ear will be sorely disappointed. But those who appreciate the reality of life’s ups and downs — finding hope despite the temptation to give up, drawing lessons from tough experiences, and defining family on the basis of love — will enjoy this play, perhaps even more the second time around.

After all, there’s always “more to learn of what you know.”

This play is two-and-a-half hours long, so come caffeinated and plan your breaks accordingly.

Adult ticket prices have been increased to $20 for the summer season. Teen tickets for ages 13 to 17 are still $12, and tickets for children 12 and younger are still $8. Active and retired military get $2 off per adult ticket. Alpena DPI and Lafarge employees get buy one, get one free adult tickets. A summer season ticket is $42, which includes all three summer shows: “Into The Woods,” “Mamma Mia! In Concert” July 12 to 14, and “Carousel” July 24 through Aug. 11.

Reach Lifestyles Editor Darby Hinkley at 989-358-5691 or dhinkley @thealpenanews.com.

Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods”

Thunder Bay Theatre

7:30 tonight through Saturday

2 p.m. Sunday

7:30 p.m. July 3, 4, 5 and 6

2 p.m. July 7

Tickets: $20 per adult

$12 ages 13-17

$8 for 12 and under

989-354-2267

400 N. 2nd Ave.