Tread carefully in these ‘Woods’

HARRISON –

Get set for a fairy tale that will knock you off your feet.

It’s “Into the Woods,” the musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, being brought to you by the Harrison High School Drama Club this weekend.

The Tony-winning show, which debuted on Broadway in 1987, “intertwines the plots of several Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault fairy tales, exploring the consequences of the characters’ wishes and quests,” as explained by Wikipedia.

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A Disney film adaptation starring Meryl Streep, Tracey Ullman and Johnny Depp, among others, came out in 2014.

And now, HHS thespians are delivering their version – the first time this show is being done on the HHS stage.

Performances are this Thursday, Friday and Saturday, April 6, 7 and 8, at 7:30 p.m. in the HHS auditorium. Tickets are $10 for adults or $5 for students and senior citizens.

“It’s my favorite musical,” said Colin Shields, director/designer. “And I’ve always wanted to do a production while I’m still young and have lots of energy.”

Cast and crew, backed by production staff, have been laboring on the project since January and Shields said everyone is up to the task.

Only seven of the 21 actors are seniors with prior experience, but Shields said that with the show geared as an “ensemble” piece, “our talent pool seems to fit the show.”

And, he said, the enormous set itself – “16 feet high but with numerous walls and sliding panels” – is certain to be an attention-grabber.

“We’ve created an infinite ‘wood,’’’ was how Shields described the intended effect.

And if you go deep into that wood, well, don’t say you weren’t warned. Shields explained: “Strange intricate things we asked our crew to build. Full of surprises. Things you don’t expect to move will move.”

“Look for dazzling special effects,” advised producer Matthew J. Boryszewski.

All the more impressive, Boryszewski noted, since “our auditorium was designed as more of a concert hall than a theater – no backstage or wing space – so Colin had to be creative in getting large set pieces on and off the stage. He created his own fly system.”

The set itself becomes a sort of character, Boryszewski suggested.

“It’s based on a German woodcut by a German expressionist artist.” And that, in turn, is intended to be reflective of the mood of the play, he said.

“I wanted it to be murkier than the Broadway version – both visually and story-wise – and not the fairy tales you’re used to. Very much in line with Grimm’s and not as bright as Disney. I was trying to get at the source materials for the tales.

“We’re telling a visual story through body movement – physical story-telling.”

And that story, he said, is about “coming together as a community, getting your wish, but with consequences. As the play says, ‘Wishes come true, not free.’ ’’

So some of the characters in the show can become multi-dimensional. Like the Witch, played by first-time HHS actor Brenda Dos Santos, a senior whose only other prior thespian experience was as a singing sheep in a middle school production. She’s been a crew member for prior HHS plays.

But Brenda said she was persuaded to audition for an on-stage role this year because “people think I’m a strong singer.” And that talent has been evidenced by her participation in the HHS Choir and Blue Notes (advanced choir).

But to the point of multi-dimensional acting: Despite expectations that her character is “evil,” Brenda discovered that the Witch also has “maternal instincts,” in that, “she tells people they have to reap what they’ve sown,” and also experiences suffering.

To find the depth of her character, Brenda said she recalled how her mother and grandmother made sacrifices in caring for her as a child.

In the real world, Brenda has been accepted to Cairn University in Langhorne, Pa., where she plans to major in psychology but also keep a hand in music.

Fellow senior Karla Vasquez, playing Cinderella, will be making her farewell performance on the HHS stage. Previously, she was Wendy in “Peter Pan,” Wednesday in “The Addams Family” and Johanna in “Sweeney Todd.”

“The music was more challenging in this show,” she said, as was “getting into character” for a “very humble” individual like Cinderella but drawing on childhood memories of watching the Disney film helped, as did advice from friends.

Said Boryszewski: “She plays well off her two evil stepsisters.”

Off-stage, Karla is aiming for a career in interior design but is keeping open her options for musical theater, too.

Junior Raymond Pineda, who played three roles in “Peter Pan” and Gomez in “The Addams Family,” will now be the Baker.

He had to make a bit of vocal adjustment since his normal range is a tenor but his current part calls for a baritone. But since he “grew up with music,” singing and playing percussion in a Pentecostal church band with his brother and sister and giving voice lessons to parishioners, “it was not that challenging.”

During rehearsals, Raymond did double duty, leading the cast in vocal warmups, Boryszewski noted.

But the acting “was hard,” Raymond acknowledged. “I had to concentrate on putting myself in the Baker’s shoes and do the opposite of what I’m accustomed to by acting like a scared person.” He achieved a breakthrough in a scene where he holds his son and imagines “the struggles a father would go through.”

The performers sing against a background of recorded tracks furnished by the MT Pit. Their voices will be amplified by body mics, several of which were donated by the Parent Teacher Student Organization and Harrison/East Newark Elks.

Costumes were hand-made, under the guidance of Mary Pat Shields; Danny Conde and Natasha Gonzalez directed the music; Amelia Shields painted the sets and Pedro Pereira and Vee Boryszewski built them; and Bianca Pereira managed the 20-member stage crew.

Ron Leir | Observer Correspondent

Ron Leir has been a newspaperman since the late ’60s, starting his career with The Jersey Journal, having served as a summer reporter during college. He became a full-time scribe in February 1972, working mostly as a general assignment reporter in all areas except sports, including a 3-year stint as an assistant editor for entertainment, features, religion, etc. He retired from the JJ in May 2009 and came to The Observer shortly thereafter. He is also a part-time actor, mostly on stage, having worked most recently with the Kearny-based W.H.A.T. Co. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, N.Y.