Should you go into the dark or into the light? Into the woods or into the world?
Those are the questions posed by two musical productions being performed this week on campuses in the University of Maine System. “Into the Woods” is onstage at Hauck Auditorium at the University of Maine, and “Unlock’d” is being presented at Russell Hall on the Gorham campus of the University of Southern Maine.
Both are lush, complex, demanding productions with large casts and technical challenges. It is evident that the Schools of the Performing Arts on both campuses have exceptionally talented crops of singers, actors and musicians right now. Every student involved in these shows works at such advanced levels, they all should be called professionals, not students.
“Into the Woods,” with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, premiered on Broadway in 1987. It upends the fairy tales’ promise that there always will be a happily-ever-after finale.
“Unlock’d” is a new musical, first workshopped in 2007, with music by Derek Gregor and book and lyrics by Sam Carner, who grew up in Falmouth. Carner, whose parents both taught at USM, was on campus last week to see the production and work with the cast.
Carner’s and Gregor’s show is based on “The Rape of the Lock,” Alexander Pope’s epic poem that satirized high society quarrel and its focus on appearances in the early 18th century. The plot revolves around a dispute over a leading lady’s lock of hair. In addition to the local noblemen, some mythical creatures, a trio of gnomes and Zeus himself takes an interest in a singing ringlet known as Beatrice.
Amiee Turner and Cynthia Sambrano, guest director and music director for “Into the Woods,” keep the production moving at a fun, but never frantic pace. The opening number, from which the show takes its name, probably is the most difficult in musical history to pull off, but the cast Friday night did not stumble or bumble one note or word.
Director Sara Valentine and music director Ed Reichert, both USM faculty members, wring every ounce of silliness and satire from “Unlock’d” without resorting to parody. The “battle scene” that is interrupted for an important daily ritual is especially effective in its staging.
The casts of both shows are equally fine from the leads to the supporting players. Noah Lovejoy and Mikayla Burridge poignantly portray the baker and his wife’s desperation for a child in ”Into the Woods.” The princes — portrayed by Elijah Verhoff, who also makes a cameo as a wolf, and Isaiah Grace — are equally charming and shallow. As Cinderella and Rapunzel, Karissa Cooper and Sabrina Sudol play the would-be princesses with sensitivity and depth.
Meg Ward’s Belinda and Abby White’s Clarissa compete and complement each other perfectly as the sisters vying for two men’s affections in “Unlock’d.” As brothers Roderick and Edwin Shearing, Sam Allen and Ben Walker-Dubay shine. In their interactions with each other and the sisters, they show that the desire for love is timeless.
Daniel Bilodeau’s set and Scout Hough’s lighting design for “Into the Woods” are spectacular. The woods are inviting and threatening at the same time because the two work so well together. The hidden tower where Rapunzel is imprisoned is surprising and delightful and the orchestra is hidden somewhere on, behind or under the stage which adds to the mystique of the show.
The great technical achievement — and it is not a small one — of “Unlock’d” is the costumes. Designed by Anna Grywalski, they are dazzling, as are the wigs worn by nearly every cast member. Perry Fertig’s set, featuring benches and well-trimmed shrubs in a garden maze, allow the costumes to define the time period and the characters in a way few college costume shops can afford.
“Into the Woods” and “Unlock’d” are testaments to the Orono and Gorham Schools of Performing Arts’ commitments to keep the performing arts lively, not only for the current generation of students, but also for the next.
Both productions feature the best each campus has to offer in musical theater and are risky ventures due to their large casts and challenging scores. All involved earned standing ovations.
“Into the Woods” will be performed through Sunday in Hauck Auditorium at the University of Maine. For information, call 581-1755 or visit umaine.edu/spa/tickets.
“Unlock’d” will be performed through Sunday in Russell Hall at the University of Southern Maine in Gorham. For information, call 780-5151 or visit usm.maine.edu/theatre.