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UCLA production of ‘Into the Woods’ emphasizes humanity in fairy tales

The cast of “Into The Woods” performs on stage. The UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television production will run at the Little Theater beginning Friday. (Ethan Manafi/Daily Bruin staff)

“Into the Woods”

Mar. 3-4, 7-11 

Little Theater

$25

By Avery Poznanski

March 2, 2023 5:26 p.m.

Through tales of witches, giants and wolves, “Into the Woods” is a reminder that no one is alone.

Presented by the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, “Into the Woods” will be sweeping into the Little Theater beginning Friday. With music and lyrics composed by Stephen Sondheim and a book written by James Lapine, the classic Broadway musical follows familiar fairy tale characters as they face the shared consequences of what comes after the happily ever after. Judith Moreland, an adjunct professor of theater and the show’s director, said the choice to present “Into the Woods” reflects a desired vision for more understanding and humanity in today’s relationships and interactions.

“This is such a topical and pertinent show for today because our country is so fractured, and everybody thinks that their lane is the correct lane,” Moreland said. “Maybe to get out of this collective mess that we are all in, in this fractured world that we’re living in, we all must work together.”

[Related: All-Black play ‘SuperAmerica’ spotlights effects of capitalism on Black experience]

Though Moreland teaches acting and typically directs plays, she said she welcomed the task of balancing Sondheim’s complicated musical score with the script’s several interconnected plot lines. Moreland likened the layers and nuance of Sondheim’s writing to the language of William Shakespeare and said Sondheim’s ability to subtly weave musical motifs throughout “Into the Woods” takes the audience on a subconscious journey.

Recognizing Sondheim’s legacy following his death in November 2021, Moreland said she leaned into the themes and suggestions already present in the script while directing. The challenge of reviving a classic show lies in understanding the writers’ original intent, Moreland said, while responding to the current state of society. Part of her approach in directing “Into the Woods” was expanding the size of the company and exploring beyond historically limited casting choices, she added.

“The story is actually better told if it’s reflective of everybody because that’s one of the themes. … Individual choices have collective consequences,” Moreland said. “We are not in silos, and I think our production absolutely reflects that.”

Playing The Witch, fourth-year theater student Marisa Moenho said she believes this production of the musical will be particularly well-received by the UCLA community. The musicality and dynamic energy of “Into the Woods” reflect the vibrance of UCLA’s student body, she said. Comprised of playgroundlike ladders and tunnels, the set design adds another layer of unpredictability to familiar tales, Moenho said. The act of physically overcoming obstacles helps keep the actors engaged, she said, while emphasizing the show’s theme of facing the unknown.

“Being brave for other people is such a tough thing,” Moenho said. “Not necessarily putting on a brave face but doing what needs to be done, whether it’s the easiest choice or not. The woods is what we do every day. The woods is how we wake up in the morning.”

As the show’s assistant director, third-year theater student Nicolas Ruano said the lessons learned by the characters in “Into the Woods” reflect the challenges college students face as they leave childhood behind. Ruano said Sondheim’s work has a durability similar to Shakespeare’s, as both writers were able to pinpoint specific yet widely relatable observations about humanity.

“The woods are … a place of transformation, but they’re also a place where people can go to figure something out,” Ruano said. “In terms of the UCLA community, the woods is growing up and being a college student. (In the) transformative four years that we’re going through right now, we’re sort of in our own little version of our own woods.”

For Moreland, the woods represent the unveiling of pretenses and divisions between people, she said. Harkening back to classical literary tropes, Moreland said the mysticism of the woods allows people to shed labels of class, social structure and false personas. She said in the woods, people are forced to contend with their truest selves and connect with others on a deeper level in order to survive.

[Related: Cast and crew make ‘Pippin’ distinct with personal affinities, mystical set design]

Overall, Moreland hopes audiences take away the importance of thinking about the greater good over individual desires, she said. The universality of fairy tales, Moreland said, helps “Into the Woods” immerse both familiar and unfamiliar audiences alike. As a performer, Moenho said she hopes the familiarity of the characters allows the audience to easily connect with the world of “Into the Woods” while developing their own interpretations.

“You don’t have to do a lot of extra work, but it is your responsibility as an audience member to put the pieces together yourself and what that means to you,” Moenho said. “Theater can be described as an escape from reality, (but) no, it’s confronting it.”

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Avery Poznanski
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