Elizabethtown Area High School opens musical season with ‘Into the Woods’

Follow HawkEye Writers as they review from the Hershey Theatre Apollo Awards season

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Caleb Steindel, News Editor/Staff Writer

INTRO

Since the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, live theatre has suffered greatly. Shows closed mid-run, casts and crews lost jobs, and musical junkies resigned themselves to Disney+ recordings and YouTube bootlegs. Now, though, live theatre is almost in full swing once again, the Central Pennsylvania scene is alive and well.

Each year prior to 2020, the Hershey Theatre hosts the annual Apollo Awards, a Tony’s-style awards show for high school productions in the area. With the Apollo Awards returning in May for the first time since 2019, HawkEye Media’s own Caleb Steindel will be reviewing many of the Central PA high school musicals that have registered to be evaluated. He’ll also be adding his own predictions. Follow Caleb each week as he adds not only his reviews, but his commentary on this year’s season overall.

Hershey Theatre Apollo Awards Facebook page

Hershey Theatre Apollo Awards website

 

THEATRE REVIEW: EAHS

Elizabethtown Area High School helped kick off high school musical season last weekend with the comical, emotional, thought-provoking, and at times, strange story of Into the Woods, written by James Lapine and the recently deceased Stephen Sondheim. Performances were held in the school’s main auditorium at 7 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 25, and at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 26. 

Into the Woods tends to be a popular choice for high schools, but the story is a challenging one to convey successfully, and it often elicits strong opinions, whether positive or negative. Occasionally described as “The Avengers for fairy tales,” the plot follows a baker and his wife as they journey into the woods to collect ingredients to break a spell of barrenness placed upon them by a witch. Throughout their expedition, they encounter other familiar characters from fairytales, each on a quest to fulfill their own wish: Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack, and Rapunzel, to name a few. Just when everything seems to resolve itself, the “happily ever after narrative” is shattered, and the characters must work together to escape new terrors and fresh tragedies. 

It’s no secret that Into the Woods is a pretty dark show – unless, of course, you’ve seen a production that decided to cut the entire second act in order to preserve the quintessentially happy ending. EAHS did not do that, to their credit, since the complexities of the second act are essential to rounding out the story’s themes and issues. The overall message is often hotly debated, but the truth of the matter is that Into the Woods is really a topical conglomeration. Most agree that the woods is a metaphor for life, or perhaps even for adulthood in the case of the show’s younger characters. Everyone is searching for something in particular, a wish or a dream they are seeking to achieve, and while most of them appear confident, the truth of the matter is that none of their quests turn out quite as they had hoped. Love and relationships play a big part, as well, and not just those stereotypical Disney ones between the princes and princesses. The baker and his wife must reconcile a fractured marriage, Jack finds difficulty connecting with his mother, and Rapunzel seeks to escape the overbearing nature of her cruel stepmother. Love, family, revenge, and tragedy all play major roles, but the story ultimately assures us of the comforting notion that no one is alone in the woods of life. 

Elizabethtown Area High School is no stranger to the Apollo Awards, taking home four awards in 2019, including Outstanding Musical for Seussical. Interestingly enough, you’d be hard-pressed to two more contrasting shows. While Seussical is known for its bright, joyful, upbeat tone, the darkness of Into the Woods is a challenge to convey – and students have no major dance numbers to fall back on. However, EAHS’s solid ensemble was up to the challenge this year. 

The cast is undeniably talented and solid across the board, with very few weak links. Bryan Murray portrays the baker, a seemingly one-dimensional role that becomes increasingly dynamic over the course of the story. He anchors the show admirably, and while his level of comedy left a bit to be desired, he still struck an excellent balance between humor and emotion. Tori Bressler plays the baker’s wife, a practical, realistic, determined character that evokes sympathy when played well. Her vocals are undeniably beautiful, and the charming dynamic that both she and Murray create is the most entertaining relationship of the production.

In terms of relationships, perhaps none in this production is better than that of the Witch and Rapunzel. As the Witch, Keli Georges absolutely steals the show with her animated hysterics but also makes us feel compassion towards the antagonist with her singing. Claire Hanlon adds to this stellar group of female vocalists with her portrayal of Rapunzel, and the stepmother-stepdaughter duet of “Our Little World” just might be the most captivating song in the show. 

Into the Woods is musically complicated. Sondheim’s constant key changes and lilting rhythms are never easy. However, Elyse Hayden as Little Red Riding Hood absolutely nails the syncopating songs and navigates her incessant key changes with ease. Brendan Fritz, who portrays Jack, might not be the show’s best singer, but he gives a great rendition of “Giants in the Sky” and conveys the character’s childlike innocence brilliantly. 

The princes of the performance – Tristan Lentz as Rapunzels Prince and Caden Zimmerman as Cinderella’s Prince – blend beautifully together, especially in the comedic duet of “Agony.” Their acting can be a bit stiff from time to time, but they both perform well together. Lentz is perhaps the superior singer, but Zimmerman’s increased stage time allows his quality acting chops and his steely swagger to shine. Olivia Gable rounds out the primary characters nicely. She is perfect for the role of Cinderella in both singing and acting, and she shines throughout the show. 

The directors and choreographers are too numerous to name, but there doesn’t appear to be any conflict when it comes to the show’s vision. There are admittedly some unconventional choices for this show; for example, many of the supporting characters are usually double-cast, but EAHS’s performance gives one role to each actor. However, that decision gives added depth to each character. Dancing is minimal in Into the Woods, but it’s clear that choreography wasn’t an afterthought. The student orchestra isn’t always perfect, but they tackle the difficult score admirably and sound terrific for the most part – especially the percussion/sound effect section. 

Furthermore, the technical side of the performance only helped to round out the familial yet sinister aesthetic. The set and lighting effectively created a spooky atmosphere that effectively conveyed themes of both warmth and darkness when appropriate. There were a few noticeably poor costume decisions. For example, Jack’s mother wore a strangely styled and bizarrely colored costume for the time period that included a yellow bandana. Moreover, despite the intended age of the Mysterious Man (who is also the baker’s father), he looks just like a kid. There was virtually no attempt made to age him. Nevertheless, the bright colors and fanciful pieces are largely well thought out and tasteful. Simplistic yet appealing. 

The small size of the ensemble can sometimes be the downfall of an Into the Woods production, but EAHS’s ensemble numbers are utterly gorgeous, and they only get better as the show progresses. “Act II Finale” deserves an award of its own for the crips harmonies and soaring tone. Into the Woods at Elizabethtown Area High School provides a deeply emotional yet lighthearted start to the high school musical season, and a talented cast across the board propels the performance to great heights. Expect EAHS to be well-represented at the Apollo Awards this year. 

 

APOLLO NOMINATION PREDICTIONS

Outstanding Musical

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Musical: Keli Georges as The Witch

Outstanding Featured Performer in a Musical: Elyse Hayden as Little Red Riding Hood

Honorable Mention for Lead Actor in a Musical: Bryan Murray as The Baker

Honorable Mention for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Musical: Tori Bressler as The Baker’s Wife