Star Theatre takes on Sondheim

Star Theatre takes on Sondheim
Bob Himlin, playing the Baker, portrays a man struggling with fatherhood amidst a whirl of storybook characters in the Star Theatre's production of "Into the Woods." Photo courtesy of Sharon Lavoie

OCEANSIDE — American lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim is known for creating demanding musicals and “Into the Woods” is no exception.

The musical, which debuted in San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre in the late 1980s, is brimming with tongue-tripping lyrics and intricate rhythms. The plotlines of the show’s nearly 20 leading characters are intertwined, while its fantastical scenes are crafted to give voice to the everyday struggles of modern times.

And though some might consider the piece daunting, the Star Theatre Company in Oceanside has taken on the ambitious challenge for its latest production.

“You don’t want to do any Sondheim unless you have the goods, unless you have the talent,” explained director David Schulz.

Putting his faith in one of his many theatre mantras -”If you build it, they will come”, Schulz was rewarded with crowded auditions and was able to assemble a cast with the skill set and determination to tackle the material.

“Into the Woods” takes a hard look at what happens in fairy tales after the happily ever after. The production explores what follows Cinderella getting her Prince, Jack climbing his beanstalk, and Rapunzel escaping her tower.

The real challenge for that cast was mastering the piece’s dozens of songs.

“It’s wordy. Sondheim loves words and he uses these mathematical rhythms that only make sense if you are really paying attention,” said Jonathan Sangster, who plays Jack. “If one person is thrown off and makes a mistake in their rhythm, it can throw off the rest of the cast because of that math equation for this show.”

“Sometimes you are actually fighting against the accompaniment to hold onto your line,” said Bob Himlin, who plays the Baker. “(Sondheim) treats the voice as a separate instrument sometimes and that has been kind of a challenge for me.”

The production’s Cinderella, played by Marian Horton, said that it took rigorous practice for her to master lyrics, including, “But then what if he knew who you were, when you know that you’re not what he thinks that he wants?”

“It’s difficult to learn but once you’ve got it, it’s amazing,” Horton said.

With the lyrics down, the cast has also had to work to pull the characters out of the storybooks and Disney movies and turn them into to living persons with emotional complexity.

“It’s not your typical musical comedy. It has real family issues. Me, as the Baker, the father son issues really hit me,” said Himlin, who has children of his own.

“Each one of these characters are flawed in a way that brings it into a modern time. So even though it’s a Disney Cinderella, it’s a Cinderella with a, ‘Is there a happily ever after?’” said Schulz.

Producing Sondheim’s challenging work in a volunteer community theater setting usually means one thing: Yikes.

But if final rehearsals are any indication, the Star Theatre Company may be able to defy the odds with its dedicated cast and production team.

Performances of “Into the Woods” will run from Feb. 14 through Feb. 23 at the Star Theatre at 402 N. Coast Highway in Oceanside. Visit startheatre.biz for showtimes and ticket information.

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