2022 High School Project’s Into the Woods at the Grand Theatre, London Ontario
Winding its way through these amazingly youth-talented woods, the 2022 High School Project has done this show proud, bringing to life Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s magnificent (and complicated) Into the Woods at the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario with a simple joy and excitement that is utterly infectious. It’s gloriously uplifting, these woods, seeing all of these high school students, so full of energy and talent, skip this renowned and much-loved youth mentorship program back to the stage with such vigor after two years of online programming. And it couldn’t have found a better spell to cast. “You wish to have the curse reversed?” Well, this proud return for the High School Project has all the ingredients it needs. It is both joyful and insightful, overflowing with a sublime youthful energy as the production and the organization opens up the world of theatre to a whole new audience with this adept staging of Into the Woods on the Grand Theatre‘s main stage, playing from September 20th to October 1st, 2022.
Brought to majestic life by a determined cast of dedicated and talented students, both on stage and in the equally important roles behind the scenes, such as stage management, props, wardrobe, scenic art, orchestra, donor relations, and entertainment marketing, this production of Into the Woods flies strong and high. It’s completely entertaining and worthy of the standing ovation it received when I saw it a few days ago thanks to director Saccha Dennis (Mirvish’s Come From Away) who finds a unique pathway and perspective in the reading room of a library, delivering a production that is both gleefully book-wormy, proud, and wonderfully wicked.
Staged with insight and fun by set designer Holly Meyer-Dymny (Hart House’s Legally Blond), lighting designer Louise Guinand (Factory Theatre’s The Monument), and sound designer Emily Porter (Berkeley Stree’s Skylight) with tons and tons of help by a crew of dedicated high school students giving it their all, this enchanting production of Into the Woods finds its solid footing on a path that begins in the most perfect of settings for this show, a library. Relishing the exciting connection to the written word, a crowd of enchanted youth sit on the floor cross-legged listening intently to the Narrator, well played by Isaac Szoldatits, read with such fun fervor from his book of fairy tales.
It’s a divine beginning and a perfect set-up for this wild and wonderful adventure, with inventive costuming designed by Lisa Wright, Head of Wardrobe at the Grand, blending the look of modern wear and the essence of a fairytale, expanded and enhanced for a festive visual. It easily transports these listening kids into storybook characters wisely utilizing current culture as a guide. I mean, the Mean Girls approach to the Stepmother and her daughters is a divine creation, lead by the well and wise casting of Miguel Constantin Mandapat as the “apex preditor‘ with her minions; Aldiyana Kruzel as Lucinda and Sierra Choong as Florinda, playing a perfect blend of narcissistic and nasty. They, along with all the others lend and blend the two worlds together, giving it all a smart sassy starting point for the narrator to usher us all into the story. The main characters spring up and take their places alongside the others, easily taking over the whole two-story reading room, a magical space that brilliantly keeps expanding and growing its imaginative branches outward with aplomb until the final curtain. It’s such a fun adventure, with some very talented high school students confidently taking on some very difficult and challenging roles and delivering these characters to us strongly and confidently. It’s the perfect wish fulfilled.
I went into the Grand Theatre happily, looking forward to seeing these high school kids embrace this great show. I must admit, I still was carrying the firmly established memory of Broadway’s latest revival of Into the Woods still dancing solidly and magnificently around my head (you can read my review here). I mean, you can’t beat a cast that includes Sara Bareilles as the Baker’s Wife, Patina Miller as the Witch, and Phillipa Soo as Cinderella. No way. No how. And I can’t wait to download the Broadway revival’s cast album that is being released today, September 30th, 2022. It will be on repeat for a long time coming.
Yet in no way did I want to walk into the Grand Theatre with an idea to contrast and compare the two. That wouldn’t be fair to anyone, including myself. But I must say, with no reservations, that overall everyone delivers with such joy in their hearts. But there are some very strong standouts in this overall exceptionally talented cast of students that I can’t help but congratulate. Most notable are the subtle and smart performances of Will Cramp as the conflicted Baker, Jasmine Darvasi as Jack’s worn-out mother, Karissa Kern as the cheeky Little Red Ridinghood, and Cindy Li as the charming Cinderella. Each of them, completely delicious and very fun to watch, but the most impressive of the lot was the very solid Stella Yanga as the Witch. In one of the most difficult parts in the piece, one that required depth and maturity, she completely blew me away both vocally and in the way she embraced the part with such assurance and charisma. Well done, one and all.
Beyond a few moments when the stagecraft action was a bit too busy, like when we were continually distracted by staircase movement as Li’s Cinderella was enthralling us with her rendition of “On the Steps of the Palace“. It did her no favors, yet that’s a minor criticism in the big scheme of things, as it seems choreographer Greg Carruthers (Hart House’s Legally Blond) did find many beautiful and charming ways of gifting all the cast with action and focus, whether it be in the form of trees or milky white cows. These kids really did deliver an absolutely delightful piece of musical theatre. Sondheim and Lapine would have been proud, particularly how much they embraced the difficult themes and storylines that exist so intricately in the music, lyrics, and story being told. So grab a ticket to the High School Project’s joyful production of Into the Woods, and get yourself over to that well-designed reading room on the main stage of the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario. You will be enthralled “for those moments in the woods“.
The Grand’s High School Project production of Into the Woods is led by Saccha Dennis (Director), Patrick Bowman (Music Director), and Greg Carruthers (Choreographer). The company is comprised of a cast of 26 student performers, 15 backstage students, and three orchestra students, from grades 9 through 12 in the Thames Valley District School Board and the London Catholic District School Board.
“When approaching Into the Woods, one of the greatest shows in the musical theatre canon, we knew we wanted to honour its spirit, while also presenting the show in a way that many will have never seen before,” remarks the productions Director Saccha Dennis. “I believe that we have truly accomplished this and that our audiences will be in for a particular treat as they watch the talent of tomorrow bring this enchanting story to life – in person, and on-stage.”
Emma Bishop: Steward
Ella Brophy: Ensemble
Sierra Choong: Florinda
Miguel Constantin Mandapat: Cinderella’s Stepmother
Will Cramp: Baker
George Crosby: Ensemble
Jasmine Darvasi: Jack’s Mother
Jorja Denny: Granny + Cinderella’s Mother
Evan Doerr: Ensemble
Isabella Espanol: Ensemble
Lauren Gracey: Baker’s Wife
Karissa Kern: Little Red Ridinghood
Aldiyana Kruzel: Lucinda
Cindy Li: Cinderella
Alli Paris: Ensemble
Alex Pearce: Ensemble
Kieran Prouty: Rapunzel’s Prince
Cami Rodriguez: Rapunzel
Ryan Shaw: Wolf
Kira Shuit: Ensemble
Leo Sigut: Cinderella’s Prince
Oliver Stanton: Jack
Charlie Stimac: Mysterious Man
Isaac Szoldatits: Narrator
Stella Yanga: Witch
Lydia Zadorsky: Ensemble
Emily Alton: Stage Management
Alyssa Palma: Stage Management
Dexter Greene: Photography & Marketing
Ruthie Rennie: Sound
Matheo Van Der Mark: Props
Nadia Barakziye: Props
Riley Lindsay: Props
Kate Telfer: Props
Amy Bae: Wardrobe
Leen Chaiekh: Wardrobe
Mackenzie De Salvo Downe: Wardrobe
Ghost Vaillancourt: Wardrobe
Sarah Wu: Wardrobe
Sarena “Onyx” Nielsen: Scenic Art
Jordan Porter: Scenic Art
Berkin Alper Girgin Orchestra: Keys 1
Sophia Tanaka Orchestra: Flute