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Exploring Sondheim’s ‘Woods’ at Hopewell

Millennial Theatre Company ventures “Into the Woods” this weekend.

The theater will stage the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical for a two-weekend run at Youngstown’s Hopewell Theatre.

“It’s my personal favorite show,” director and music director Joe Asente said. “For me, every time I watch the show or listen to it, it brings a new level to the story. At every stage of life, you can take something from the story.”

The musical is one of Sondheim’s most popular and most produced works. The plot weaves together several familiar fairy tale characters — Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (as in Jack and Beanstalk) — but the tales take a darker turn as told by Sondheim and Lapine.

It debuted on Broadway in 1987, and a recording of that production is the one that hooked Asente.

“I wore out a copy of the Broadway version with Bernadette Peters on VHS,” he said.

That production won three Tony Awards, but lost best new musical to “Phantom of the Opera.” A 2002 Broadway production won the Tony Award for best musical revival, and a 2014 film version starring Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick and Emily Blunt earned more than $200 million worldwide. A new revival opened on Broadway over the summer, and based on the rapturous reviews, it’s an early frontrunner for best musical revival at next year’s Tonys.

That revival nearly kept MTC from being able to stage the show.

“It was pure luck,” Asente said. “We applied (for the rights) a week and a half before they announced the transfer to Broadway. I know some schools that applied (after the announcement) that didn’t get it. We were lucky to slide in right before the announcement.”

The cast features Sarahh Kinser, Courtney Martin, Jacob Nash, Natalina Kazimir, Halina Bakeris, George Maillis, Daniel Gordejev, Emilio Santiago, Karlina Wander, Ben Doss, Tommy DeLuca, Roz Blystone, Ty Hanes, Samantha Hudzik, Hannah Stephens, Ryan Stewart, Daniel Chiaberta, Regina Rees, Briana Matijevic, Aubrey Vernon and Michelle Jalbert

Having just wrapped a production of “Grease” at Youngstown Playhouse in August, Asente already was working on a tighter rehearsal schedule than normal to squeeze in “Into the Woods” before MTC’s “Rocky Horror Show” at B&O Station in November. That schedule was disrupted further when Asente contracted COVID-19 for the first time.

“I was unavailable for a week of rehearsal,” he said. “I think the people we have in the show are so perfectly suited for the roles, they were able to rise to any challenge.”

Maybe a bout of COVID-19 was fitting. Asente said the Giant in “Into the Woods” always has served as a metaphor for an external threat — AIDS when the musical debuted in the ’80s, post 9/11 fear for the 2002 revival and coming out of a pandemic for the current Broadway production

“There are some parallels with what we’re going through now,” he said. “It hits home for a lot of people. Stories like this are the way we cope and deal with the world around us.”

MTC is returning to Hopewell’s performance space after stage “Heathers the Musical” there in January and “The Last Five Years” in the theater pre-pandemic.

“We approached them last year about ‘Heathers’ and they were super excited about us coming in doing shows there again,” Asente said. “It was mutually beneficial for both of us. We will be using the space, not only the January (2023) slot for ‘Avenue Q,’ but they said anytime they had an open slot in their season, we were welcome to come in and do a show.

“‘Into the Woods’ is quite a natural fit for Hopewell. It can be done on a grand scale, but it also can be done on a smaller scale. You can scale up or scale down and not lose any of that intimate feeling. Scaling down to fit that theater brings you closer to the action and immerses you more in the story.”

If you go …

WHAT: Millennial Theatre Company — “Into the Woods”

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 9

WHERE: Hopewell Theatre, 702 Mahoning Ave., Youngstown

HOW MUCH: Tickets are $20 and are available online at www.millennialtheatre.org.

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