Preparations for the University of Southern Maine’s spring musical production of “Into the Woods” began in January. But one member of the cast has been researching her role for as long as she can remember.
“When I heard that we were doing this show I was like, ‘I want the witch and nothing else,’” said Kallie Brown, a fourth-year Musical Theatre major.
Brown grew up on a steady diet of Disney cartoons. Her favorite was “Tangled.” It’s the story of Rapunzel, a princess who is kidnapped by a witch and imprisoned in a tower. Rapunzel escapes by dangling her hair out a window, allowing a prince to climb the tower walls and rescue her.
“Into the Woods” combines the story of Rapunzel with fellow fairy tale icons such as Cinderella and Red Riding Hood. After all of their wishes come true in the first act, we learn in the second act that their lives didn’t turn out as “happily ever after” as we’d been taught as children.
Sometime between pre-school and college, Brown began to change her opinion about the witch. The 2014 movie adaptation of “Into the Woods” contributed to that evolution. Meryl Streep played a witch who was equal parts spiteful and sympathetic. Brown hoped to find the same balance with her own portrayal.
“I think that she’s just trying to be a mother,” Brown said. “She got punished by her mother and I’m sure that she has her own trauma in her family life and brings it into having her issues with Rapunzel and making sure that no one takes her because (Rapunzel is) her only source of family.”
Affection for the character wasn’t enough to impress the director, Liz Carlson-Guerin. The music by legendary songwriter Stephen Sondheim is highly complex on both a technical and thematic level. Brown and each of her castmates had to prove their performing chops to win their roles.
With the song “Lament,” Brown gets a solo to showcase her voice. The soundtrack is full of familiar favorites. Two princes (Nick Sutton and Will Searway) compare the size of their egos in the comic duet “Agony.” When her prince falls shorts of expectations, Cinderella (Molly Scott) sings “On the Steps of the Palace” to settle her mind.
“They have been so committed to being on point musically with Sondheim,” said Carlson-Guerin in praise of her cast. “It’s been incredible. The work has been extraordinary.”
A large share of the credit for that success goes to Osher School of Music Lecturer Ed Reichert. It’s his job as the show’s musical director to make sure the singers hit all the right notes. He’s also an active participant in making the music as the orchestra’s conductor and pianist.
Reichert is a steadying presence, having lent his expertise to dozens of University productions over the years. Carlson-Guerin, meanwhile, brings a new perspective to the Russell Hall stage in Gorham. “Into the Woods” is her first directorial work at USM, though she’s far from a novice.
Carlson-Guerin grew up in Gorham and the shows at USM helped stoke her love of theatre. She pursued her dream to Philadelphia where she worked for years as a theatre director, until returning to Maine last spring.
“It’s my first time back at USM since I was a kid and seeing shows at USM as a young person,” Carlson-Guerin said. “It’s been a beautiful symmetry to be there and to be getting a chance to work with these wonderful folks. It’s been so much fun.”
One of Carlson-Guerin’s last projects in Philadelphia was prep work for a new production of “Into the Woods” that fizzled before reaching the stage. USM gave her a second chance to realize her vision.
Her changing personal life added to the sense that this was the right show at the right time. Carlson-Guerin gave birth to a son in June. Her desire to raise him in Maine was a major factor in her decision to move. Being a new mother led her to reexamine the characters, their motivations, and their obligations to each other.
“One of the things that I really love about this show is that it speaks to us differently in different seasons of our lives,” Carlson-Guerin said.
Seasonal considerations also extended to the winter weather. Snowstorms forced the cancellation of rehearsals on February 23 and 28, putting greater urgency on the remaining rehearsals to iron out any kinks.
Of the eight performances that were planned between March 3 and 10, the one on March 4 also fell victim to a storm cancellation. Ticket sales were already brisk. If anything, the limited opportunities to see the show further increased demand. Every show was sold out. The fairy tale characters of “Into the Woods” may not have gotten a storybook ending, but at least the actors did.
“Personally, I feel like my ‘happily ever after’ is performing, and being on stage, and being creative, and doing it with people that also love to do the same thing, and creating a family,” said Brown. “It’s truly something special.”
“Into the Woods” was a joint production of the Theatre Department and the Osher School of Music. They’ll team up next for “Eurydice Rising,” a modern retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus. The show will begin its run on April 4.