Once upon a time with Sondheim
Meadowbrook Academy Performing Arts’ production of “Into the Woods” takes over Ocala Civic Theater on March 23-24.
West Ocala private school Meadowbrook Academy spends several months each year producing full-scale musical productions, and this year is no exception. Angie Quidley and her cast of triple-threat teens–along with an intrepid, hard-working crew–are taking over the Ocala Civic Theatre and reviving the songs, dance and sylvan enchantments of Stephen Sondheim’s hit musical “Into the Woods,” premiering 7 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, March 23-24.
“This is the junior version of ‘Into the Woods,’ Quidley explained, ‘but we have to add underscore and scene-change music to it because they chop it up and it doesn’t flow. I have to make it flow.”
If you haven’t seen it, Sondheim’s musical is a mashup of fairy tales with a script that “the Guardian” calls “playful, quirky and fun” and “a profound exploration of parental anxiety and loss.” It’s chock full of sass and wit, and a touch of pathos. In the play, we learn about the outcomes of Brothers Grimm all-stars including “Little Red Riding Hood,”, “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Rapunzel” and “Cinderella” as well as some others.
The play starts with a childless baker and his wife and their quest to begin a family (the original beginning of the Brothers Grimm’s “Rapunzel”). A witch has placed a curse on them, and other fairy tale characters join them on an eventful odyssey as they try to lift the curse.
Beloved playwright Sondheim died at 91 in 2021. His career spanned more than six decades. He penned the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s score for “West Side Story” in 1957 and became known for musically dynamic, somewhat edgy and out-of-the-ordinary plays such as “Company” (1970), “Sweeney Todd” (1979) and “Into the Woods” (1987).
Part teacher, part den mom and big inspiration, Quidley exudes nonstop energy and persistent follow-through during a recent dress rehearsal at the school. Students fill a classroom, draping costumes and props over Yamaha keyboards left over from Quidley’s elementary music class.
The mood is upbeat and Quidley leads the group in prayer before staging scenes at the adjacent church on the property. Quidley has performance experience herself, including a turn as the “Memory”-belting Grizabella in “Cats.”
Greg Thomson, artistic director at the Ocala Civic Theatre, worked with Quidley on “Cats,” and he said he’s glad the theater’s lighting and sound people will assist in the production.
“We are always happy as a community theater to have community groups in our space and integrating with us as well,” Thompson said. “I think it’s great for kids to have the experience in a facility that has full lighting system and all the stuff that we provide.”
The students will be ready, too, said Quidley. “Since before Christmas, they’ve been learning their lines and places, and they’re learning how to read the music,” she said. “We put together a concert team, and they went out to nursing homes. It’s important for them to bring cheer to the residents.”
Lead Alexa Blanco helps the cast and crew, building set pieces with her contractor father’s help and taking on other responsibilities in addition to her lead role as the baker’s wife.
She explains the difference between the stage production and the 2014 movie adaptation directed by Rob Marshall, featuring a cast of heavyweights such as Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Johnny Depp, James Corden and Anna Kendrick. Receiving mixed reviews, Rotten Tomatoes gave it a critics’ score of 71 and an audience score of 49.
“You’ve got to separate them as two different works of art that took the same lyrics and the same storyline,” Blanco offered. “In the stage production, it’s as dramatic as it is funny. Whereas, the movie made it more serious and darker.”
A senior this year, Blanco has been accepted at several colleges. “I have nine BFA offers,” she said of bachelor of fine art programs at various schools across the U.S.
The production also features senior Makayla Baxley as a fearsome witch with a convincing cackle. When she’s not performing, she’s active in several sports activities.
Other cast members include C.J. Kimball, who nobly portrays the baker; the capable Aaliyah Maninga as the narrator; a gracious Daniela Morales as Cinderella; and the feisty duo Valeria Viteri and Katie Weible as Cinderella’s infamous stepsisters.
According to Quidley, the production offers valuable life lessons for teens. The mastery needed to succeed in musical theater is an elaborate process just as it is in life.
The longtime teacher at Meadowbrook works with the students to make sure they’re singing in character. Once they nail that, they feel like they can do anything, she said.
“Musical theater builds confidence, and kids feel successful right away,” Quidley said.
Tickets to Meadowbrook Performing Arts’ “Into the Woods,” onstage at 7 p.m. on March 23-24, are $15 in advance and $20 at the door. Call (352) 861-0700 for more information.