The lights dim, the sounds of a serene forest spring subside while the audience in Shaffer Lab Theater falls to an anticipating quiet. Everyone is here to see Hoof’n’Horn’s Spring production of "Into the Woods."
Hoof’n’Horn continues to excel in its first season since the COVID pandemic disrupted the last several years, following its excellent production of The Rocky Horror Show in fall 2021 with this production of "Into the Woods." For director Nicky Amato, a sophomore, the show served as an opportunity to develop friendships with the cast and crew as well as push himself into new genres of directing.
[The show] is surprisingly funny and also surprisingly touching,” Amato said.
Indeed, the show deals with dark humor, emotional duress and heartstring-tugging songs throughout its two acts. A late masterpiece from Steven Sondheim, who passed away in 2021, "Into the Woods" combines several famous fairy tales, including Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Rapunzel and more, into a narrative following the characters’ pursuits of their “happily ever afters” in the first half and a more grim second act that shows what comes next.
Without spoiling the revelations of the musical’s twists, there is a distinct shift in the show between the fantastical and idyllic fable of the first act and the grittier last half. For Amato, this shift between acts was the most important aspect of bringing this production to life.
“What I discussed with the actors was ‘What happens after the storybook is written?’” Amato said. “Your lives don’t just end because the book is over.”
This emphasis is surely felt as the second act progresses. Unfamiliar with some of the play’s nuances, I was surprised by the twists and turns that it took while coming to its final conclusion. All throughout, however, the cast and musicians shine in their roles and bring life to a challenging and ambitious show.
The set design of the show, while minimalist, brings the audience “into the woods” along with the many characters. A particular standout of the props and set design is Rapunzel’s tower, which spans two floors of the Shaffer Lab Theater, with clever utilization of shadows and projections to give it scale. The crew flits about with purpose, moving every prop where it needs to be so that the show continues smoothly. And, of course, the cast brings us along for a raucously fun journey.
I found myself laughing along with the rest of the audience as the bumbling princes (Gus Gress and Brendan Sweezy) sang numbers like “Agony” or as the Witch (Jack Sanitate) cackles across the stage. The minimalist set design allows the cast to embody their characters and make the play all their own.
The musicians, hidden in the wings, also perform admirably, backing the complex music and lyrics of Sondheim with aplomb. As the characters move about the stage, one would never know that it was the director’s first attempt at musical theater, let alone such a long and ambitious production like "Into the Woods."
“I had never directed a musical until now,” said Amato, speaking of the show’s production process, which began in January. “It was a little hard to visualize the choreography, as I had only directed ‘straight plays.’ By working with our choreographer (Avery Lythcott-Haims), [we were able to] bring this seamless transition between the choreography and the blocking… It was a very collaborative atmosphere.”
Of course, no show is perfect, even when realized by such talented and driven artists. I felt the length and redundant nature of several numbers. The second act, while deeply comedic throughout and touching at its conclusion, feels a bit disjointed in its writing. These issues, however, are endemic to the show and a part of its unique challenges. "Into the Woods" requires a very large cast, with many characters having several challenging solos or duets to test their vocals. Even better, then, because this production manages these challenges well and all of the actors bring their all to each number.
As Hoof’n’Horn, and Duke Theater Department in general, continue to navigate the path forward from the COVID interruptions, we can only hope that there are more great shows like “Into the Woods” in the upcoming fall semester. The care and ambition taken in its production are immediately evident to any spectator. It’s a very fun show and I am delighted that student theater productions are back into full swing.
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