Marcela Lorca didn’t go easy on herself for her directing debut with Ten Thousand Things Theater Company. The new artistic director’s selection of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” represents the most intricate and complex foray into musical theater attempted by the company, which specializes in performing in unconventional spaces for non-traditional audiences.
A tough task, to be sure, but Lorca excels in a full-throated and heartfelt production that bears the hallmarks of Ten Thousand Things’ work under founder Michelle Hensley and yet marks a strong step toward making the company Lorca’s own.
Like TTT shows of years past, “Into the Woods” eschews conventions of gender and race in casting. And for anyone who’s ever seen one of the company’s shows, the staging style is familiar: The audience sits on all sides of the performers in a few rows of chairs; the actors perform with minimal set and costumes under whatever lighting a given venue provides.
But while past TTT musicals were often intimate and affecting, they sometimes short-changed the first half of the “musical theater” label. In the name of serving the story, songs were excised or actors cast more for their acting ability than their vocal chops would talk-sing their way through parts of the score.
Lorca, by contrast, has filled her hard-working, quick-changing nine-member ensemble with artists that have bona-fide musical theater abilities, yet don’t skimp on the storytelling.
The result is a production that comes out of the gate (with a lengthy, multi-voiced and multi-layered prologue that lays out the fairy tales intersecting in a forest that form the basis of the plot) strongly sung and just as strongly acted.
The staging deftly reveals the heartache and the longing in the piece, along with the humor … sometimes in the same moment. As a childless baker and his wife, Jim Lichtscheidl and Aimee Bryant bend a sense of forlornness into wry humor, conniving and hard-won devotion. As the witch who placed a curse on the baker’s house, Austene Van is wicked and yet full of want. When Elizabeth Reese (as a prince pursuing Rapunzel) and Brian Bose (another prince, wooing Cinderella), sing of the “Agony” of their quest, their preening petulance is comically convincing. And when Tyson Forbes emerges to comment on the proceedings (as the musical’s omniscient Narrator or somewhat-less-omniscient Mysterious Man), it feels more like an avuncular visit than an intrusion on the plot.
Despite the musical theater hijinks, though, this “Into the Woods” feels grounded in humanity, cracking wise yet never losing sight of a story about parents and children, morality, responsibility and what happens after “happily ever after.”
Lorca’s light but sure-handed touch as director (and co-choreographer, with movement that is evocative and right-sized for small playing spaces) is complemented by Nick Golfis’ simple set, which renders wood crates as cottages and towers and tattered triangles of ripped muslin as forest trees. Sonya Berlovitz’ costumes provide color and contrast in mostly simple, straightforward hues. Peter Vitale, who is usually TTT’s versatile and rangy one-man band, gets able assistance from the company, who play violin, guitar, trombone and other instruments.
Like most Ten Thousand Things musicals, “Into the Woods” is executed with a smaller-than-typical cast of actors playing multiple roles. But while the package may be small, the rewards are large.
Ten Thousand Things’ ‘Into the Woods’
What: “Into the Woods,” staged by Ten Thousand Things Theater Company
When: Through March 24
Where: Performances alternate between Open Book in Minneapolis (1011 S Washington Ave.) and North Garden Theater in St. Paul (929 W. Seventh St.).
Tickets: $30; audiences under 30 admitted on a “pay what you can” basis
Information: 612-203-9502 or tenthousandthings.org
Capsule: Marcela Lorca’s directorial debut as TTT’s new leader makes a statement.