Saturday, September 20, 2014

Theatre heads ‘Into the Woods’

Experienced cast perseveres through setbacks to bring Grimm fairy tales together on stage

Into the woods — Rachel Day (top) and Ruth Hitchcock (bottom) joined other Liberty students to perform “Into the Woods,” the first theater show of the school year. Photo credit: Ruth Bibby

Liberty University’s Theatre Arts Department brought multiple fairy tales to life during the past two weekends of “Into the Woods,” the first theatrical production of the school year. Characters such as Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack from Jack and the Beanstalk are combined in the Broadway production to create a completely new tale that opened Friday, Sept. 21.

The play was based off a book by James Lapine, which was later adapted into a musical with Steven Sondheim contributing the music and lyrics. Both Cooper and her cast expressed their fascination with Sondheim’s work.

“Every time you read the score and the script, you realize how brilliant Stephen Sondheim is and how clever and witty he is with his poetry and his lyrics,” Theatre Arts Department chair and “Into the Woods” director Linda Nell Cooper said. “So there’s always something new you can find in it.”

Carson Burkett, who plays the Baker, one of the leading roles, said that he fell in love with “Into the Woods” after discovering a DVD of the Broadway musical when he was in the 10th grade.

“Every time I listen to it and every time I do it on stage, I find something new that I’ve never caught before,” Burkett said. “I think that speaks to the brilliance of the author.”

After two weeks of performance, Cooper was pleased with how things have gone so far.
“(The shows) have been going extremely well,” Cooper said.

This is the third time that “Into the Woods” has been performed at Liberty, but this year marks the first that it has been performed in the Tower Theater, which opened in August of 2010.

Cooper also chose to direct the story in a different way than she had the last two times.

“It’s a challenge doing it in a new concept,” Cooper said. “People expect it in a traditional way, and you take a risk with a new concept. The audience has loved (it).”
Cooper said that many talented actors tried out, and she had enough good actors that she could have made two or three separate casts.

“(It) is one of the smallest musicals I have directed in about eight years,” Cooper said.

Preparation for the play did not come without its share of setbacks, though. A little more than a week before opening night, Rachel Day, who plays the role of the Witch, badly sprained her ankle while practicing a special effect during a rehearsal.

“It’s a sprain, but it’s a level three,” Day said. “I tore the ligaments, and we’re looking at a possible surgery. With a normal sprain, it would have only been maybe five days on crutches.”

According to Cooper, anything that involved Day using stairs or a ladder had to be changed, and a few of the special effects had to be canceled. Cooper helped Day incorporate crutches into the performance, and in a few scenes, Day even rode on a motorized scooter.

“What a trooper that girl is,” Cooper said. “She is a true professional. She didn’t miss a beat.”

Injuries aside, the cast had their hands full with the music of “Into the Woods.”

According to Cooper, the music for shows is normally provided by a live orchestra, but for this show, the music was already recorded, forcing the actors to stay even more in sync with the music.

“It’s a challenge performing Sondheim’s score,” Cooper said. “It’s extremely demanding on the vocals.”

Despite all that “Into the Woods” requires of actors, Burkett said that he thinks that the cast has risen to the occasion.

“Since the opening night, I feel like it has progressively gotten stronger,” Burkett said. “What’s really great about this cast is that, for the most part, they’re all experienced at Liberty. We do have a few freshmen, but they have jumped right in and been awesome.”

According to Cooper, other standouts on the stage so far have been Kelli Overmyer as the Baker’s Wife, Timmy Williamson as Cinderella’s Prince and Colton Montgomery as Jack.

The third and final weekend of “Into the Woods” will include 7:30 p.m. shows on Oct. 5 and 6, and a 2:30 p.m. show on Oct. 7. For more information, visit the Department of Theatre Arts page at liberty.edu, and for tickets, call 582-SEAT.

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