By Jan Mercker
Tackling the work of genius Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim can be tricky for community theaters. But after five years of putting on top-notch productions to packed houses, Loudoun’s Main Street Theater is ready to take the plunge with a funny and sharp production of Sondheim’s classic, “Into the Woods.”
The full-length version of the witty and complex work intertwining several well-known fairy tales is a big leap of faith for the company’s founder Karlah Louis and the show’s director Ann Cirillo.
But after building the company’s local cred and recruiting some the region’s best singers and actors, Louis knew she had the cast to carry it this year.
“I wasn’t confident enough to attempt Sondheim until this year, until I knew that we had within the boundaries of our talent pool people who could do it,” Louis said.
The musical, which debuted on Broadway in 1987, tells the story of a baker and his wife who can’t have a child because of a witch’s curse. They set off—into the woods—to break the spell and run into a cast of intriguing characters including a witch with issues, an indecisive Cinderella, Jack, of beanstalk fame, and a couple of lovelorn princes, along with sassy Little Red Riding Hood and a dangerous but persuasive wolf.
Louis and Cirillo pulled their cast both from familiar Main Street regulars and fresh talent drawn in by the allure of performing Sondheim, including several new male leads.
“For some people, that’s their thing,” Louis said. “They come out of the woodwork.”
Part of the challenge with Sondheim, the directors agree, is that unlike many musicals where dialogue is simply interspersed with songs, “Woods” is all about the music, with a constant musical underscore and fast-paced musical repartee.
“[Performers] rarely stop for words—they just keep singing. To be in this show, you can’t just be a singer—you have to be a musician,” Louis said.
Louis has brought on an 11-piece orchestra, a first for the company. And when casting the show, she and Cirillo focused on finding a cast of “singers who can act” rather than actors who can sing.
That cast includes Main Street favorites Matt Curtis, who played Curly in the company’s production of “Oklahoma!” last year and Michelle Viljoen, another company regular, as the baker and his wife, respectively. And although their roles are central, both actors and directors agree that “Woods” is a true ensemble production rather than a showcase for handful of star characters.
“No single person can carry this show and that’s what makes this one so unique,” Viljoen said. “You really are dependent on every other person on the stage to make this story happen and bring it to life. Everybody has got to be on their game all the time.”
The cast also features a roster of new “ringers,” as Louis jokingly calls her new discoveries, including a new ingénue in Cinderella, played by Maria Brock, a former pianist for the company who blew Louis away with her undiscovered vocal abilities. Another stellar newcomer is Tina Ghandchilar, who’s funny and sharp in the very juicy role of the witch.
“She’s such a complex character,” Ghandchilar said. “It’s a moment-to-moment breakdown throughout the journey to self-discovery.”
And working with the tight-knit Main Street cast has been for a thrill for Ghandchilar, a longtime DC-area actor.
“Our chemistry is so on-point, and every night, we’re finding and discovering new things with each other,” she said.
For the show’s director, having a pool of new and returning talent has made the challenging project doable.
“It’s a little daunting when one begins to take on Sondheim,” Cirillo said. “My goal was to find performers who would work well in an ensemble and who could tell a story. And that’s what “Woods” is—it’s about being able to tell a story and to work really tightly with each other and help the other create their stories.”
And although the show is based on fairy tales, it’s full of humor, and real-life emotion, tackling the realities of love and marriage, and even death, as characters deal with the aftermath of “happily ever after” in the musical’s famed second act entitled, “Once Upon A Time … Later”
“It’s the truth of the love that has grounded all these characters and brought them back together, the truth of the idea of, ‘be careful what you wish for,’ because you have what you need,” Cirillo said.
“Woods” is the third Main Street show for which Louis has handed over direction to Cirillo, who put on the company’s well-received productions of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie” in the past two years. Cirillo started out as a theater parent when her daughter Elyssa, now a senior a Woodgrove High School, got involved with the company a few years ago. Cirillo has a background in theater, and Louis encouraged her to audition for the company’s production of “Willie Wonka,” where she scored a role as Charlie Bucket’s grandmother Georgina.
Cirillo was also cast in Main Street’s production of “Oliver!” but when a short-handed Louis asked her to run a few numbers with the young people in the cast, Cirillo’s directing abilities showed through, and Louis found a partner she could count on.
“She and I go about things in different ways but our aesthetic for our final product is the same,” Louis said. “I knew that I could trust her with my company and walk away from rehearsals and come back and love what she was going to produce.”
Louis is still heavily involved with the production, as head costumer and as an actor, in the wickedly fun role of Cinderella’s stepmother.
And although the Broadway show featured some heavy and sometimes racy scenes, Louis and Cirillo stress that Main Street, which is known for well-produced all-ages theater, has come up with a version that’s appropriate for elementary-aged kids while staying true to Sondheim’s vision.
The show, with only 23 actors, has a much smaller cast than most Main Street productions, without the large chorus many of its musicals have featured. This means the friends and family who so often make up community theater’s audience won’t fill as many seats. So, Louis and Cirillo are counting on Main Street’s reputation for high quality productions—and a new crop of Sondheim lovers—to come out.
“We’re stepping off a little step of faith here that it will work.” Louis said. “As the years have passed, we’ve gained an audience that is beyond friends and family. … We’re just hoping they all show up.”
Main Street Theater Productions’ “Into the Woods” runs Fridays April 13 and April 20 and Saturdays April 14 and April 21 at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays April 15 and April 22 at 2 p.m. at Franklin Park Arts Center, 36441 Blueridge View Lane, Purcellville. Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for seniors, students and children. Advance purchase is strongly recommended. For tickets and information, go to mainstreettheaterproductions.org.