Mu Performing Arts goes 'Into the Woods'

Mu Performing Arts goes 'Into the Woods'
Photo by Eric Melzer
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Over the past several years, Mu Performing Arts has begun to do musicals on a regular basis, both originals and classic American musical theater.

"We've developed a pool of musical-theater performers who we are excited about. That's been a developing theme for our company," says Rick Shiomi, the organization's artistic director and the director of Into the Woods, which opens this week at Park Square Theatre.

"We have been looking at musicals that fit our personality. Many of our musical performers love Into the Woods. We also have a number of wonderful female musical theater performers, and we wanted a piece that showcases their talents. This play has many wonderful roles for women," he says.

Cast members of Into the Woods: (back row) Suzie Juul, Katie Bradley, Randy Reyes, and Sheena Janson, (front row) Sara Ochs, and Maxwell Chonk Thao
Cast members of Into the Woods: (back row) Suzie Juul, Katie Bradley, Randy Reyes, and Sheena Janson, (front row) Sara Ochs, and Maxwell Chonk Thao
Photo by Eric Melzer

Into the Woods certainly comes with the musical pedigree. The Stephen Sondheim musical -- with a book by James Lapine -- re-imagines and remixes a number of classic fairy tales and then asks "what happens next?" 

"When I thought about it, I wondered what we could do that would be different than an everyday production. We're an Asian-American theater company, and I have an interest in traditional Asian arts. I immediately began to apply those to Into the Woods," Shiomi says. "Not that we would change the script or lines."

Bringing the Asian side of the stories -- and many traditional folktales have versions throughout the world -- comes through in the costuming and the set design, both of which bridge different Asian cultures. Following that, elements of specific cultures have been infused, such as a Korean mask dance or Japanese Oban Festival dance. 

The company features a number of Mu veterans, including Randy Reyes and Sheena Janson as the Baker and his Wife; Sara Ochs as Cinderella, Suzie Juul as Little Red Riding Hood; and Katie Bradley -- stepping into the very large shoes of Bernadette Peters -- as the Witch. "These are the kind of roles that will really showcase our actors," Shiomi says. 

Shiomi isn't concerned at all about the actors, but there is plenty of hard work to do when approaching the material. The first is the very structure of the play. The first act presents the intertwined folk stories, all of which come to a happy ending. The second act deals with the consequences of the actions during the first act. "Often they come off as two different plays. We've been working on how to keep the continuity so it feels like one musical," he says.

The other balancing point is between the levels of realism and fantasy present in the story. "That's been a wonderful challenge for us. When it is too realistic, it is too dreary. When there is too much fantasy, you don't get enough punch from it," Shiomi says. 

Solving the puzzle of the show -- and Sondheim loves his puzzles -- reaches all the way down to the character level.

"That's especially true in the relationship between the Baker and the Baker's Wife. The text of their relationship is a couple bickering all of the time. You have to create a subtext of love and caring that is not written," Shiomi says.


Into the Woods
In previews through Thursday, opens Friday through August 5
Park Square Theatre
20 W. Seventh Pl., St. Paul
For information, call 651.291.7005 or visit online. 

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