Arts Alliance’s Garden Party presents ‘Into the Woods’ with handmade costumes, intimate setting in Shanley

Ashton Goren and Kara Peeler

Although “Into the Woods”  began with a narrator saying “Once upon a time” to a crowded Shanley Pavilion audience, the musical was anything but a classic retelling of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. 

Presented by Arts Alliance at Northwestern University’s Garden Party this weekend, the Stephen Sondheim musical weaves the plots of several classic fairy tales into a single narrative via separate intertwining vignettes.  

“It allows for audience members to feel specific connectedness to all the different stories and empathy for all the different aspects,” Communication junior and Producer Lauren Gunn said. “That could meld together to feel like that warm cup of soup feeling in your heart of hearts.”

Communication senior Lucia Miller directed “Into the Woods” and said they selected the musical because other NU groups have produced it in the past. Miller especially enjoyed seeing the show their freshman year. 

“Into the Woods” was the first student-produced musical to premiere this school year — which Miller said gets the theatre community excited. Though the team has been preparing for about five months, it only had a few weeks on-campus to rehearse together, Gunn said. 

“Into the Woods” modernizes characters such as Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, an evil witch and two handsome princes.

Cinderella questions her feelings for a prince after attending a festival with him, and intentionally leaves her slipper behind to see if he will pursue her. After her grandmother is almost eaten by a wolf, Little Red Riding Hood exchanges her red cloak for the monster’s pelt and wields a dagger.

“It’s a story that really grows with you,” Miller said. “Every time you’re working on it or engaging with it, you might find yourself identifying with a different character.”

The show also turns storytelling on its head. Characters kill off the narrator to save themselves, posing questions about the permanence of stories and who gets to tell them. During Act Two, several characters realize they exist in a vacuum, and they’re only happy under the circumstances determined by their narrator. 

By the end of the musical, each character confronts their immoral choices, which lead to blame, guilt and a catastrophic climax. The witch, the musical’s primary antagonist, is one of the only characters who takes accountability for her actions, rendering her more likable than the classic fairy tales’ protagonists.

Communication senior Molly McDermott, who played the baker’s wife, mentioned how some versions of “Into the Woods” cut off after Act One, where everyone lives happily ever after. 

“I see it as a story that’s full of hope, but not in a way that’s sugar-coated. There’s a lot of tragedy, and there’s a lot of heartbreak in the show,” Gunn said. “You feel empathy for those characters.” 

Shanley shows are predisposed to be more intimate, so even this larger-scale musical included actors within mere feet of the audience, she said. 

The play’s costuming included multiple elaborate masks, an embroidered cape for Little Red and a gown for Cinderella with hand-sewn string lights. The costume team even repaired pieces backstage during each show. 

“The focus was to honor a lot of the high, elevated extravagance of a lot of traditional ‘Into The Woods’ styles …. but also to take somewhat of a more contemporary approach to it by making it more tangible,” Gunn said. “These are real people.”

Arts Alliance’s “Into the Woods” marks McDermott’s fourth time acting in the play, prompting her to realize how her perception of fairy tales has changed. 

“I think that’s part of what fairy tales are — you connect to one thing about them when you’re younger,” she said, “and then as you’re older, you begin to realize some of the lessons that maybe you didn’t realize were there in the first place.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @ash_goren 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @karapeeler

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