West Hartford Summer Arts Festival’s 2023 production ‘Into the Woods’ is set to run from July 27-29 at Hall High School.
By Bridget Bronsdon
West Hartford Summer Arts Festival (SAF) is headed “Into the Woods” this summer to explore the musical fantasy classic. In just five short weeks, the production and performance team has brought the woods to life in a remarkable demonstration of local talent.
Sara Demos Avery, executive producer and artistic director of SAF, gave insight into the production timeline from the start to the stage. Avery stated that the show is chosen a year in advance but rehearsals commence in June for a quick five-week period. Within those short five weeks, the entire production is brought together to create the masterpiece audiences will see on stage.
Avery stated that she works throughout the year with director and choreographer Kate Morran and scenic designer Rory Fitzsimons to discuss their visions for the production from artistic perspectives, but the real focus is “recruiting the kids.”
The performers on stage are far from children and being treated as such. Cast member Summer Neiditz, who plays Jack’s mother, could attest to the professionalism of the organization. “You’re treated like a professional here which is very nice in a way because I love doing theater and I like being taken seriously as an actor so I’ve been challenged in a way that I haven’t been.”
Neiditz’s persona is just one role of many characters the young storytellers are taking on. “Imagine all of the fairytales we know and love come together in a quest through the woods to break the witch’s curse. Our protagonists are the Baker and the Baker’s Wife and they encounter all these other characters we’re familiar with – Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel,” and more, explained Avery.
While Avery remarked that the show is about finding a happily ever after, she also noted the different versions of the musical they will be performing. The one-act edition on Saturday afternoon is for family-friendly audiences and ends with a traditional happily ever after, “but the full-length performance explores what happens after ‘happily ever after,’” Avery explained.
One of the ways the performers dove into the depths of their character was through the theme of grief, explained Morran. “Act I is very much a fairytale,” so the characters are making wishes, Morran detailed. “In Act 2, sometimes they get what they wish for or they don’t and there’s consequences. So we really explored as a cast the stages of grief and how all the characters aren’t moving in a straight line through grief and for different reasons.”
Neiditz couldn’t speak higher of her experience with this performance.“It feels like a very well-rounded experience when it comes to a bunch of different aspects of musical theater,” she said. “I feel like I’ve learned a lot of things in terms of the musical theater world,” she added.
Although most of the production team has already been involved in an “Into the Woods performance” previously, “it’s about finding new angles and new ways to tell the story but staying really true to what is a beautiful piece of theater,” Morran noted.
One of the ways in which Morran fused the traditional story with a touch of SAF originality was through dancing. She explained that although the show isn’t traditionally dance-heavy, “we like to keep dance in the mix, we’re a dancing program.” Morran continued, “We use movement very intentionally, always, but even more so in a show that doesn’t necessarily call for it.”
Neiditz attested to the high caliber of dancing within the show and the unique twist it puts on the performance. “I have so much respect for all the dancers here because it adds such a special element to the show, something I haven’t seen in ‘Into The Woods’ before.”
In a magical and somewhat spooky culmination of dance, acting, set, costume, and music, the musical is sure to transport audiences. “It does kind of feel like you’re in the woods. Everything is exciting but scary but also really magical. It’s just so much bigger than I thought it would be, ” Neiditz explained.
Morran proudly shared these rewarding feelings. “As a group they are magnificent, they are stunningly talented,” she said.
In addition to the quality of production, the cast is nothing short of a theater family. Cameron Hoskins, a four-year SAF veteran playing the protagonist role of The Baker, gushed over his experience in the cast. “It is wonderful being able to work with my friends on stage … It’s amazing, I love SAF,” he raved.
Even though Hoskins has already been a part of four “Into the Woods” productions, he still found ways to make this production nuanced. “’Into the Woods’ is a really thick piece to work with, just because there’s so many ways to interpret it,” he noted. “It’s fantastic to look through the script and take specific words and moments and make them your own, make them mean something with a different inflection or a different gesture,” the actor explained.
Undoubtedly, no flourish or motion was disregarded by this group of actors, but above all Avery emphasized the true goals of SAF. “The most important thing for people to understand is we really care about training future storytellers,” Avery stated. “We’ve been doing this for 47 years, but I’ve been at the helm for 13 and I learned so much about what it means to be a theater artist and to really put on quality theater for this age,” she continued.
“There are so many programs that people can choose from but what we know is that our standards are extraordinarily high and at the same time we try to have an element that education is first, empathy is first, compassion, community, kindness are all things that we focus on,” Avery remarked.
With the help of a masterfully artistic directing team and a cavalry of brilliant young talent, SAF will transport audiences on a journey “Into the Woods.” Tickets can be purchased here and performances will run July 27-29 at 7 p.m. with a 1-act edition available on July 29 at 1 p.m.
Original “Into the Woods” music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine.
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