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Derek Kwan, Griffin Hewitt, Noah Beemer, Richard Lam and Aidan deSalaiz perform in Into the Woods, which has been a gateway drug for theatregoers to a more sophisticated tier of musicals for years.Scott Cooper

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  • Title: Into the Woods: In Concert
  • Music and lyrics by: Stephen Sondheim
  • Book by: James Lapine
  • Director: Michael Torontow
  • Actors: Tracy Michailidis, Aidan deSalaiz, Jamie McRoberts, Tess Benger
  • Company: Talk is Free Theatre
  • Venue: Spring Water Provincial Park; Winter Garden Theatre
  • City: Near Barrie, Ont.; then Toronto
  • Year: To Aug. 21, 2021; then Oct. 28 to 30.

Critic’s Pick

Into the Woods – staged in actual woods?

In normal times, Barrie-based Talk is Free Theatre’s idea of taking composer Stephen Sondheim’s beloved musical mash-up of fairy tales and mounting it in nearby Saltwater Provincial Park might have seemed gimmicky.

But we’re not in normal times – and, as someone who’s been watching a lot of theatre outdoors, it was a great pleasure to see, and especially hear, a full-length musical in a location deep enough in the forest that there were no sonic interruptions by motorcycles, lawnmowers or police sirens for once.

The sounds of birdsong, the wind and a nearby brook, meanwhile, seemed like artful additions to this particular score.

For more than a generation now, Into the Woods has been a gateway drug for theatregoers to a more sophisticated tier of musicals.

Sondheim and book writer James Lapine’s first act brilliantly weaves together a variety of well-known stories and satisfies in a traditional sense.

Cinderella (Tess Benger), Jack (Noah Beemer) of beanstalk fame and Little Red Riding Hood (Kelsey Verzotti) all fit into an original overarching narrative involving a baker (Aidan deSalaiz) and his wife (Jamie McRoberts) on a quest to reverse a curse that has left them childless.

Having brought all the characters to their happy endings, however, Sondheim and Lapine then send them back into the woods in a second act that explores the ramifications of the decisions made and actions taken in the first. Simple morals are put to one side for an ambiguous examination of the grief and trauma that lurk beneath the surface of classic children’s stories.

Oh, and the plot ramps up, too, as Sondheim and Lapine start killing off main characters with a lack of sentimentality perhaps only matched by the creators of Game of Thrones.

Director Michael Torontow’s very poignant take on the show for Talk is Free Theatre is billed as “in concert” – which usually implies a bunch of actors sitting around music stands. Increasingly, though, Canadian producers seem to be savvily underselling shows as such, then overdelivering.

That’s the case here. A cast of 10 professionals, ranging from up-and-coming to veteran, are all off book and walking around wearing head mics – even dancing at times.

Musical director Wayne Gwillim has done a fine job of adapting, for just five musicians, Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations – with the versatile Dennis Kwok, on clarinet, flute and piccolo, deserving special credit for going so deep into the woodwinds.

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Into the Woods asks hard questions of parents about whether what we do to protect our children in the short term might not harm them in the long term.Scott Cooper

Matt Dawson’s sound design is surprisingly excellent, given that there’s not even a bandshell in the part of the park where Into the Woods is being staged. The lack of sets or much in the way of costumes, meanwhile, fits naturally with a show about storytelling. The musical can sometimes suffer with too much production design, as demonstrated by the only partly satisfying 2014 movie adaptation.

(Give me the old PBS Great Performances recording of the original 1987 production, any day. No, really, give it to me – I’ve lost my old VHS copy.)

None of this, of course, would matter if the performances in Into the Woods weren’t so very good.

Tracy Michailidis stands out as a well-sung Witch, seeming to use up a whole pandemic’s worth of stored stage energy to dive into that character’s anguish. We’re talking an Olympic-gold-winning, three-metre, reverse 4.5 somersault in pike position dive into it.

Her delivery of The Last Midnight in particular is absolutely chilling – though how could that song’s description of the crumbling of a world order not be, at the moment?

Benger, deSalaiz and McRoberts all give remarkably subtle performances for an outdoor production, balanced by the more lighthearted and fun characterizations of other actors.

It’s definitely a crowd-pleasing idea to have Griffin Hewitt and Richard Lam double as the two princes and Cinderella’s stepsisters. Lam shows off particularly good comic timing in all his roles, but most notably as Jack’s beloved cow, Milky White.

Talk is Free Theatre’s young company augments the production at certain key moments. The incorporation of seven actual teens amplifies the show’s moving messages about children and the futures we build for them.

Into the Woods asks hard questions of parents about whether what we do to protect our children in the short term might not harm them in the long term. I thought not just about the pandemic, but the unfolding situation in Afghanistan, and climate change.

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Tracy Michailidis, Jamie McRoberts and Aidan deSalaiz star in Into the Woods.Scott Cooper/Talk is Free Theatre

“When are things going to return to normal?” one character asks in the second act.

Until they do, Into The Woods In Concert is as close to a fully satisfying musical theatre experience as a playgoer is going to find in driving distance of Toronto. Its short run at Springwater Provincial Park is sold out through the weekend, however tickets are now on sale for an indoors remount at the Winter Garden Theatre in Toronto from Oct. 28 to 30.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage.

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