October 6, 2018 | Jessica McFarland

In an ambitious move, Saginaw’s Pit and Balcony Theatre has opted to go Into The Woods for their season 87 opener. The 1986 Tony-Winning show visits several familiar fairy tales and a few new characters to weave the disparate stories together.

Opening with an expository piece where each character wishes for the things that they are convinced would make their lives better, they proceed to go into a metaphorical woods to have adventures, “get the thing”, and sing reprises. “Happily Ever After” here is only the end of Act 1 - in Act 2 we discover that wishes don’t actually solve our heroes’ problems, and another journey into the woods delivers ambivalence, moral dilemmas, disillusionment, and loss.

There were some great portrayals to be seen. Cameron Plarske as affable but dimwitted Jack was a clear standout, with excellent “huckleberry” physicality, great facial expressions, and a beautiful low vibrato. While his “Giants in the Sky” may not have the same feel as the classic belted version, it is a surprisingly sensitive and sweet take. Also excellent were Ryan Sequin and Emily Rupp as the Baker and Baker’s Wife, respectively. Sequin’s Baker has a gentle demeanor and lovely singing voice that seem to hide being seconds away from a meltdown. Rupp displays excellent comedic timing in a role that could easily turn into an unlikeable nag, and has a beautiful singing voice to match. Local theatre veteran Ann Russell-Lutenske is truly excellent as Jack’s Mother, and while she is always a crowd favorite with her impeccable humor and appropriate ad libs, she also hits moments of tenderness and feistiness at just the right spots. In some of the smaller roles, Dan Skutt has a creepy and hilarious turn as The Mysterious Man, Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters portrayed by Danielle Katsoulos and Lillian Deering never have a dull moment on stage, and Karly Laskowski as Granny makes the most out of every moment with pitch perfect timing and hilarious physicality.

Before I get too far into the less successful moments of Woods, I want to touch on two problems with Friday night’s performance. The band led by Todd Thomas had major pacing issues which were very difficult to overcome in this particular show. It’s highly underscored, the music does not give actors very clear cues as to when to begin singing, and because Pit ironically does not have a pit, the band must be placed backstage. This makes it very difficult for actors to hear the band and vice versa, and no way for visual cues to be exchanged should things get dicey. Almost every song ran slow (leading to the overall 3 hour run), and cues were messy. The second major issue was mics - they were all over the place, levels were very inconsistent, and there was lots of feedback and popping. Hopefully these issues will be addressed before the rest of the performances, as many of the other problems stemmed from these difficulties.

Jenny Cohen as the Witch and Elijah Holnagel as the Narrator are both unusual casting choices for their respective roles. Both are typically played by older actors, and as such some of the gravitas and maturity that these roles require are a little lost in translation. Cohen nails the comic moments of the Witch and has a fine voice but doesn’t have the maternal or abusive interactions with Rapunzel (Zoe Gilbert) down quite right. She did have my favorite moment of the night, however, a chilling turn around at the beginning of her showstopping number “Last Midnight.”

The choice to cast The Narrator as a boy has been done in recent professional productions, and while a simple change it alters a lot of the framework of Woods. Holnagle plays the role with a lot of energy, clear diction, and a fine singing voice in “Ever After,” but I found myself wanting more purpose from his blocking. Brigham used him in some really special ways, particularly in “Giants in the Sky,” but in other scenes his presence felt a little intrusive and contributed to an overall feeling of detachment from the characters. Ultimately Woods is a very human show set in a fantastical environment; coming of age and the parent-child relationship are universally relatable, but I feel like they got a little lost among all the shininess of this production.

An unsung star of the night was costumes, designed and built by Erica Tatum. It is very unusual to see this caliber of work done by a costume designer in a community theatre, which is usually a volunteer position. From the winky fun of the wolf’s biker jacket, to the ‘mauves and pinks’ of Cinderella and her entourage, there was no detail left out. Everything fit beautifully, and was not only appropriate and lovely, but helped add to character.

Scenic painting by Mary Swift was beautiful and detailed, with stunning dimensional work and elaborate textures and patterns over nearly every inch of the set. Set Design by Isaac Wood was very visually interesting, but not necessarily suited to Pit’s stage or some of the blocking needs of the show. A large treehouse stage right blocks a decent amount of the stage and is hardly used. Rolling trees are attractive but not really functional and also block some scenes up on a platform. A tunnel is a neat addition and serves for an added entrance, but could have been used more often (It’s badly blocked by the treehouse so perhaps that’s why Brigham shies away from it). Some clever bits occur with the Wolf, and the function of Rapunzel’s tower is adequate, but the appearance is out of keeping with the rest of the set.

Lights designed by Bailey Banks suffered from a similar issue, being a bit too overambitious. The board operator couldn’t keep up with cues, and things never ended up lit correctly. Several pivotal scenes had the focus on the wrong people, although I could tell that the overall look and design would have been creative and attractive had things synced up properly. Props by Jerry and Darby Gwisdala were appropriate and functional.

Overall this Woods has enough familiar to it to make it an enjoyable evening, and some creative choices that make for good conversation after the fact. If the music and tech issues get worked out the show will certainly be one you won’t want to miss! Into the Woods runs Oct. 6-7, and 12-14, Friday and Saturdays at 7:30 and Sundays at 3:00.

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