The butterfly effect is strong in the woods. Every action has a greater and even more chaotic reaction. 

In the musical Into the Woods, instead of taking the neat and tidy happily-ever-after handed to them on a silver platter, classical fairy tale characters wish for more. Cinderella, Rapunzel and her witch, Jack from Jack and the Beanstalk, and Little Red Riding Hood do get more than they wish for, more than they know what to do with. 

Presented by the St. Michael’s College Troubadours at Hart House Theatre, U of T students and creatives have poured their souls into bringing Into the Woods to life from February 9–11. The crew will run four shows — scheduled for 8:00 pm every day and one matinée show at 2:00 pm on Saturday. Tickets are currently available online on Hart House Theatre’s website or by in-person pick up at the Hart House HUB Main Information Desk.

Working on this musical since August 2022, Director Paul Meyer and the devoted cast and crew have been assembling the masterpiece bit by bit. The day I was fortunate enough to sit in on a rehearsal, the crew was working with some props — like the boots of a giant and moving bookshelves — to implement them into the impressively fast-paced scenes and intricate choreography. 

“It’s a very fragmented show,” said Joshua Kilimnik, the actor behind Jack, to The Varsity. “There’s just a lot of things that happen all over the place.” Things like the stealing of golden eggs, brotherly agony, a baker and his wife who love, cows coming back to life, and lessons being learned — or not. 

Meyer’s take

Originally performed on Broadway in 1987, Into the Woods has racked up 764 broadway performances over the past few decades, even being made into a movie in 2014. When Meyer rewatched Into the Woods this past summer, he once again fell in love with the themes of the musical. “Act I is very much a story of individual wishes. But they’re not happy after. But we see in Act II, when they come together as a community, that’s when they find each other.” This sense of found family and collected questing has never been quite this relevant, especially for the theatre community, which struggled through the pandemic. 

On top of the show emphasizing community, Meyer approaches the musical with questions woven into the narrative. He recast the Narrator as a younger, teenage girl instead of an old man like in the original, who is “living in our society and is seeing all these divisions and all of these pressures. She resorts to the world of fairy tales where she’s like, ‘these are the stories I know and cherish,’ but she realizes that these aren’t as good or as nice as we think about them.” 

While many childhood fairy tales end in a happily-ever-after, their messages and themes are deeper than the surface level. Meyer and the cast make you think about humanity, about the cookie-cutter ideas we accept easily. 

The puzzle pieces

The show is no less than a musical monster, with Stephen Sondheim’s compositions running for just under three hours. There are many cogs and gears involved with getting Into the Woods on its feet and running, from orchestral substitutes to stage managers to the actors. It’s a feat of coordination and teamwork. 

When you attend a show, Tara Costello — a U of T alum and the show’s lighting designer — is likely working the lights in the booth behind your head. “We have a lot of effects going on in this show because it is such a campy, over the top… fairy tale.” Jonah Nung and Ariane Prescott, the music director and associate vocal director respectively, coached vocals. Assistant stagehands and crew are running around, swapping and fixing and moving props. Oh, and Abigail Lewis, the stage manager, oversees all of the controlled chaos. She and her assistants smooth out bumps in the show and handle loose ends. 

Not to mention the orchestra — sound effects and the feeling of live music that nothing else can replicate. It’s a mountain of a team. The clockwork relies on each role, each little bit of magic to get Cinderella home before midnight.

Found family first

Mia Rebelo, who plays Little Red Riding Hood, and Nicolas Cikoja and Emma Kidd, who play the Baker and the Baker’s Wife, respectively, sat down with The Varsity after a three-hour-long rehearsal. Their discussion had barely started before Kilimnik walked in with pho and Siobhán Gyulay, the incredible voice behind the witch, took a seat beside Mia. Actors popped in and out of the room, changing out of costumes and joking. 

At the end of the lovely half-an-hour discussion, Meyer, other actors, and even some of the crew were in on the conversation, bouncing off one another and poking fun at it all. Their easy demeanour and friendships are testament to the themes of Into the Woods — the casual bonds that grow when working on a craft everyone’s passionate about and the community that develops and translates to Meyer’s and the original Into the Woods’ message. 

When asked about good moments during the process, Kidd first talked about working with Cikoja. He returned the sentiment moments later: “I don’t think I could be anywhere near as successful with some of those moments if I didn’t have you in some of those scenes.” 

The cast is also always quick to mention everyone else involved behind the scenes. Nung went through a daily check-in with the crew: how they feel on a scale of 1–10, their intentions for the day, accessibility notes, and a funny little question to lighten things up. Emma Faith, who plays Cinderella, said that this practice encouraged their friendships and bonding. “19 people thrown into a room together,” Meyer reflected on the cast. “Going from that first read through to everyone being comfortable with one another… It’s been really great.”

Everyone always circles back to how rewarding it is to see all of their hard work come together, to the support system they’ve got. 

“Seeing everything come together; like today, I must say, was one of my favourite rehearsals so far…” Meyer said. “Not only have the cast elements and performances come together so far, [but] so have the technical parts. The set, the costumes, the lights, and the sound… The cast and the crew and the creative team and the orchestra — everyone is doing such a great job.”

Cikoja, referring to all the work behind the scenes and on the stage, says: “It really did take a village to put this show together.”

Two midnights down

When I went to see the musical this past Friday, the audience was delighted by the production’s organized discord. There was reverberant cheering for the actors after their big songs, laughter after perfectly timed jokes, and a standing ovation at the end of it all. 

The live music and in-sync lighting were incredible. Costello’s red lighting during character deaths and warm spotlights on the princes during the number “Agony” tied everything together. Nung conducted the live band, adding dramatic sound effects and accents to the actors’ storytelling. The grandeur was only amplified through the smoke machine and quick changes — and magic laced in all of the performances. 

Seeing Gyulay’s full costume, the collapsing bookshelves, and Milky White — a cow — in all their glory brought the story to life. There was so much effort and love put into every aspect of the show, I can’t properly articulate how clear it was in everything that happened on and off stage — Meyer’s director’s note in the programs, the laces on the giant’s boots, a fake-blood stunt, and the emotions behind the vocals. The community of storytellers paid homage to the original Into the Woods while still incorporating Meyer’s novel takes, coming together to take the audience into the fantastical world that makes you wish — with caution.

Editor’s note (February 3, 2023): This article has been updated to include details about the live performance.