There’s a great moment early in the second act of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods when an offstage sound effect momentarily takes control of the action. All the fairy-tale characters are onstage — Cinderella, Jack, the Baker, and the Baker’s Wife — and they are all stunned by an overwhelming crash, which is the sound of the Giant’s big foot stomping the Witch’s garden.
When I arrived at the San Marcos High School theater for a look at rehearsal last week, I was lucky enough to come in right at that point. The students paused, and Riley Berris, the director of the show and San Marcos’s teacher of theater, locked eyes with them from the middle of the 20th row. “Right,” she said. “I see. We’re there. Okay.” And then she made the crash noise, vocally, and it was quite convincing, an exercise in live Foley artistry that elicited exactly the response onstage one would imagine — broad smiles but also stunned expressions. We felt that a giant had stepped.
Into the Woods, for those unfamiliar with it, takes a distinctive approach to some familiar fairy tales, combining characters from different stories freely and throwing them into situations that surprise and disconcert them, not only because of the challenges they encounter, but also by the way their responses leave them feeling about themselves. It’s an alternative fairy-tale universe where second thoughts and ambivalence prevail over too-tidy morals and simplistic solutions. That’s one of the reasons that Berris says it has long been her “favorite musical ever.” She explained, “I love the lessons learned. I first saw it when my brother was doing it in high school here in Santa Barbara, and I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know musicals could be like that. Of course, it’s challenging,” she added. “We had to put an extra month of prep rehearsals in to get the music right, but it was worth it.”
The production, which opens May 3 and runs through May 12, features 22 students in the cast and many more in the student orchestra. Students at San Marcos participate in every aspect of the process, including the design and fabrication of the set and the costumes. Berris noted with pleasure that senior Miguel Sola has taken full responsibility for the costumes. There are five seniors in the cast, including Lily McWhirter, who will attend NYU’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts drama division in the fall, and a talented 9th grader, Maddie Thomas, playing Red Riding Hood.
Talking about the resonance of this play (and especially its big, disconcerting giant steps) to Santa Barbara today, Berris said that the students appreciate how it “can be so raw and honest through the medium of fairy tales. These kids witnessed the mudslides — when the giant’s foot comes down, that’s something they understand.” As for the visual style of the piece, well, don’t expect the wolf to wear a tail. “He’ll be in a fur coat and leather pants,” Berris said. “That’s plenty of wolf.” This show is bound to be plenty of fun, and transformative too. You never know: Those beans might be magic.
Into the Woods will play May 3-12, 7 p.m., at San Marcos High School Auditorium (4750 Hollister Ave.). See smhstheaterdept.com.