Award-winning actresses, Bernadette Peters in the theatrical version, and Meryl Streep, in the recent cinematic release of Into The Woods, may make this particular role daunting, but not intimidating enough to cause actress, Saphire Demitro to mimic their performances. After all, she plays the witch, not a copy cat in this Hart House Theatre’s ingenious rendition on the University of Toronto campus from January 15 to 30. The theatre is off College Street and University Avenue for all newcomers.

into the woods musical hart house theatre toronto
The Narrator/Mysterious Man, The Baker, The Witch, The Baker’s Wife, Jack and Jack’s Mother (photo by Scott Gorman)

Describing herself as “a fan” of this Stephen Sondheim modern classic, Demitro has seen it both on stage and screen, but said once she has read the script and begins the acting process, she forgets how other actresses have previously performed the role. Besides, one of the messages of Into the Woods deals with negating stereotypes, and there are many shades between black and white in the characters.

Her first reading? “I was a bit floored. I was terrified, excited and terrified again,” said Demitro, but adds she was fascinated by the script. She also continues to discover new things about the various characters in this multi-layered story based on several interwoven fairy tales such as Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Jack and The Beanstalk and Rapunzel.

YOU DON’T NO BEANS ABOUT BEANS

The storyline begins with a Baker and his wife who live by a forest, surrounded by neighbours and farmers, but not your typical garden variety. Characters from different fables: Jack, Little Red Riding Hood, Prince Charming, Rapunzel, Cinderella and the stepsisters all live within the vicinity of this enchanted, and somewhat haunted woods. The Baker and his wife want a child, and soon discover that their unattractive, spiteful neighbour is an ugly witch, who put a curse on their family tree, specifically The Baker’s father. Why? He stole from her garden and took her favourite magic beans.

into the woods musical hart house theatre toronto
The Baker (James King), The Witch (Saphire Demitro), The Baker’s Wife (Amy Swift) (photo credit: Scott Gorman)

However, the witch says she will reverse the curse in three days, when the blue moon appears if the Baker can find four items: a red cape, a strand of yellow hair, a white cow, and the golden slipper. This sets the play in motion as everyone ends up in the forest pursuing their destinies. The witch’s journey is a catalystic role that sets plot and character in motion, and is remarkably insightful in it’s transformations. About her character Demitro said: “the witch does what she thinks is right at the time,” and the play speaks to society pre-judging people. “Everyone thinks that witches are all evil.

The characters developed by James Lapine bring to light various personality traits that are atypical from the original fairy tale, and often creates surprises and humour. The humour comes from “honesty,” says Demitro. None of the characters are whom they appear to be. “We see good people doing bad things.” While there are many ironies, messages and nuances in this plot of many intersecting tales, Demitro said: “if the audience gets just a few of them, we’ve done our job.

CUCKOO!

Another unique aspect of this play is its unique interpretation by Director, Jeremy Hutton of placing the dark forest setting inside a giant cuckoo clock, which also has moving mechanical parts. Since the story’s timeline takes place during a three-day period awaiting a blue moon, Hutton believes the cuckoo clock was integral to indicate the passage of time, especially at the bewitching hour of midnight. A wonderfully-contrived, fanciful concept befitting a crazy show.

Jeremy is a brilliant director with his eye on the big picture,” Demitro said adding: “He makes sure the clock is running, but he trusts the actors a lot and he doesn’t micro-manage.

There are several sets created by Joe Pagan that are not animatronic and have to be moved by dedicated volunteers and students, which is one of the reason this production would have difficulty being toured. However, Demitro loves the show enough to tour it, and said Hart House Theatre as a production company is favoured by many actors and technicians for its freedom, professionalism and acts as a giant stepping stone in their careers.

The only part of Into The Woods that has little wiggle-room is singing the music, and she has about four songs to perform. Sondheim’s lyrics set to intricate rhythms meant paying special attention to punctuate all the right parts in all the right places. “It‘s challenging in its perfection, but the music really pushes the story forward,” she said. The structure of the score “mirrors life,” with the first act having more buoyancy, with bright, whimsical music as people chase their wishes and dreams. In the finale, when reality has set in, and we know the baser and darker side of all the characters, there are fewer songs and singing, noted Demitro.

WISHFUL THINKING

In reminiscing about our youth and how we treasured fairy tales, Demitro particularly, since she has been in this role, now realizes they’re silliness and foolishness. “Think about it, a slipper that only fits one person?” Equally foolish, are real life people, who fixate on wishes, and think if they had just “that one thing” in their lives, their life would be perfect. Often times, when they achieve that one thing, it is not what they thought it would be, she said adding: “There is no such thing as perfection.

into the woods musical hart house theatre toronto

By the end of this musical, there can be several interpretations of how the witch disappears, deceases or exits this nebulous world of the woods. Demitro said the stage version of the show is closer to Grimm Fairytales, more so than the screenplay that has darker undertones. Demitro believes the witch just “takes herself out,” because she realizes she can’t do anything more for the people around her. During the three days and nights in the forest, the lives of the characters have been drastically altered, and altered in duplicity, some for better and for worse.

With fun-filled wizardry, mystery and magnificence, Into the Woods is a fable world worth re-visiting – twice upon a time! Tickets for the show can be obtained by calling the University of Toronto box office at (416) 978-8849 or by visiting their website at: http://www.uofttix.ca.

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