When a women's college goes coed, change is systemic. So we shouldn't be surprised to see transitions like the ones under way at William Peace Theatre.
For years, the program at the region's newest university (known until last year as Peace College) has harbored artistic ambitions belying such a seemingly modest campus and student body. Notable versions of A Winter's Tale, Cabaret, Jane Eyre and Twelfth Night have featured professional actors supplementing all-women student casts in recent seasons.
Both laudable traditions continue under Jason Dula's crisp direction in this production of Into the Woods. In Stephen Sondheim's Tony Award-winning 1986 musical, a middle-aged character called the Narrator (a solid Wade Newhouse) revisits the fairy tales of his youth. But as he peers into the playhouse of his past, it's clear this is no low-stakes nostalgia tour. Instead, the Narrator is searching for different wisdom, different endings in the re-enacted stories of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk and Red Riding Hood—and, through them, a way forward in a life that hasn't turned out so happily ever after.
His supposed nemesis is a witch whose deep-seated longings for justice, love and someone to nurture ultimately threaten a number of characters. Jennifer Avery, who is also the production's choreographer, fully inhabits the role. Laura Parker's uncanny costume for her reveals a character whose disaffection has gradually transformed her into a thing of the woods.
But the real news here involves a cast primarily composed of first-year students populating a production so successfully. As several area directors have learned to their dismay, Sondheim isn't for beginners; his works would challenge any student cast—and certainly one in which 70 percent were freshmen.
This iteration isn't flawless. High notes challenged several singers more than once, and nascent actors were still sharpening individual emotional moments out of earlier, rougher approximations on Saturday night. Among these, credit Alex Reynolds, who discovered nuances in his role as a baker who longs for a child. And Maigan Kennedy's robust, show-stopping work as the baker's wife in the number "Moments in the Woods" nimbly charts her character's conflicted emotional currents after a mid-quest tryst.
As Cinderella, Skylar Noblezada comically conveyed the dilemma of a princess wed to a prince who's not all that charming. In the musical number "Agony," Tyler Graeper and Dalton Hood are amusing as princes most in love with their own melodramas. Julie Davis brings believable exasperation to the mom of the beanstalk boy, but Sawyer Stone's Red Riding Hood never seems to escape bratty adolescence, though she finally evades one smooth wolf (a crooning D.J. Curtis).
As the Narrator and the witch goad these characters to change, innovate and learn, the group reaches conclusions different from those found in the Brothers Grimm. They ultimately learn, through big mistakes, that more than a knife and sharp wits are needed to make it through the woods—and the world. Ethics, compassion and companions all prove just as mission-critical.
In the world of fairy tales and this one, people change through their experiences; they mature, and finally come into their own. Artists do this as well. All told, there's more than enough evidence to call this transitional production at Peace one to grow on.
This article appeared in print with the headline "One to grow on."