Review: Madera Theatre Project’s lovely ‘Into the Woods’ continues a journey that we all can recognize


Children do listen.

I was barely out of childhood myself – or at least my teen years – when I first saw “Into the Woods.” Stephen Sondheim’s beloved fractured-fairytale musical classic is a known quantity today, having been performed at professional, community and high school theaters across the land, but back in 1990, when I saw the national tour of the show in Anchorage, Alaska, it was new territory.

Pictured above: Juan Luis Guzman and Meg Clark are the Baker and his Wife in “Into the Woods.” Photo: Madera Theatre Project

It even came with a study guide for educators, a copy of which the publicist helpfully supplied as I prepared to write a preview story for the Anchorage Times.

I left Alaska soon after the performance for a job at a bigger newspaper, and it was hard to say goodbye to my friends there. As I drove along the Talkeetna Highway on the two-day trip to Haines, where I would catch the Alaska Marine Highway ferry home, I couldn’t get the words to “No One Is Alone” out of my head:

Sometimes people leave you
Halfway through the wood
Do not let it grieve you
No one’s gone for good
No one is alone


I was sad. I got over my sadness. It wasn’t until years later – after watching “Into the Woods” numerous times at various points in my life, from Broadway to high-school productions – that I realized one of the great qualities of this show. It impacts you differently depending on where you are in your journey.

Which brings me to the lovely production of “Into the Woods” finishing up its too-short run at Madera Theatre Project. (It closes Saturday evening.) Strongly sung and charmingly staged, it’s a tender and rousing experience.

Director Michael Christopher Flores took a big risk with this one. Picking up on the theme of children that Sondehim so eloquently weaves through the show, Flores uses a framing device to set it in a child’s world. We’re greeted with four actors in school uniforms sitting at classroom desks. The conceit of the show, it seems, is that the following tale is structured as a school lesson. The students will become a Greek chorus of sorts: providing props, pantomiming plot points, dancing in the background.

The biggest shift, however, was breaking the Narrator/Mysterious Man into two separate roles played by different actors. Mitchell Henderson plays just the Narrator (while John Piper makes a sturdy Mysterious Man). Evidently this has been done before by some directors, but I don’’t know if any of those narrators have been quite so young as Henderson, whose buoyant performance is a standout. Presented as a leader among the students, his youth, stage presence and indefatigable enthusiasm gives the material a fresh perspective. He’s definitely someone to watch in the future.

I was hesitant at the student concept at first, worrying that the additional foot traffic on stage would only serve to clutter the action, not edify it. But I soon lost that fear. I think it is an astute directorial choice and adds significantly to the production.

The cast is an all-star list of talented local musical-theater actors, and it’s no surprise they deliver strong performances. Juan Luis Guzman, as the Baker, is solid and memorable. He’s older than is usually cast, and his Baker comes across with more of a gruff, resigned, funny weariness than I’ve ever seen in the role. Guzman’s vocals can’t match the virtuosity of some of his co-stars, but he makes up for it in acting through his singing, his voice a reflection of his character. All around, it’s one of the strongest performances I’ve seen from him.

Meg Clark and Taylor Delgado Murray are in fine form as the Baker’s Wife and Cinderella, respectively, and Mindy Ramos, stepping in as an understudy as Jack’s Mother at the performance I attended, was a delight. Jack Hammerstrom, as Jack, is terrific, and Zelia Ankrum’s pert, zesty turn offers a sting to the sweetness.

Flores continually finds ways to draw the audience into the action, reminding us that we, too, are more than passive observers in the show’s world. (With its smorgasbord of Freudian sexual allusions, Jungian archetypes and Piaget’s cognitive insights, mothers and fathers get a pop-psychology workout in this one.) So do philosophers: “Wishes come true, not free,” a character tells us. I love that when a delightful Ellie West sings, “I’m the Witch, you’re the world,” she sweeps her arm first at the characters on the stage and then to the audience itself, implicating it as well.

Some quibbles: My biggest issue at the Aug. 4 performance was the sound. Designers Jeremy Hitch and PJ Gallegos had problems balancing the recorded track with the singers; the recording sounded brash, almost tinny, at times overwhelming some of the softer songs, such as “Stay With Me.” Through most of the show, Flores’ choreography seemed graceful and natural, except with the interactions between the two Princes (Tyler Murphy and Chase Stubblefield), which seemed a bit overwrought and fussy to me. And I confess to confusion about a recorded voice or voices that could be heard before the second act. (It almost sounded vintage, like an unintelligible Roosevelt fireside chat.) Was it part of the directorial concept or a design flaw?

But the overall impact of the show is clear and beautiful. S. Eric Day’s clever green platform-dominated set, reminiscent of a forest but without the trees, has an almost alien, otherworldly presence. Christina McCollam-Martinez’s lighting design adds a sophisticated and elegant touch. Rose Cantu’s costumes are clever. (I liked the muscle sleeves of Rapunzel’s Prince’s jacket.)

I mentioned earlier that “Into the Woods” can mean different things depending on the phase of your life. You can’t separate the critic totally from the person. I saw this show on a day I spent time with a beloved friend in hospice as she was making the transition into her final days. I hadn’t fully thought about the impact of this until I was sitting in the theater and the music started. The lyrics to come flooded into my head, and I knew I was in for an emotional ride.

Sometimes people leave you
Halfway through the wood
Do not let it grieve you
No one’s gone for good
No one is alone

Those words feel far from that lonely highway snaking its way through the Alaska wilderness. And yet it could be yesterday.

Then Sondheim steps in to console:

Into the woods — you have to grope
But that’s the way you learn to cope
Into the woods to find there’s hope
Of getting through the journey
Into the woods, each time you go
There’s more to learn of what you know

I think I get it now. Or am starting to. This adult is listening.

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

Comments (2)

  • Christina

    Thank you Donald for sharing your time for this production and all of the productions you review. This review actually brought a tear to my eye as you shared self-reflections old and new.

  • JodyM

    I was so taken by this production, and not just because Cinderella is my daughter-in-law. Unlike you I’d never seen it on stage; the movie left me cold. I asked Taylor about her fourth-wall moment at the end and she shared it was something Michael put in to give the finale a bit more of an edge.

    I opened this review well aware of Diana and after I read your beautiful
    tribute. Thank you.


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