“Cross pride is on the rise!” exclaimed Edith Johnson, Wilbur Cross High School’s new principal, against a backdrop of enchanted trees and princesses roaming the stage in bright ball gowns. Next to her, Jennifer Frechette pinned Little Red Riding Hood’s bonnet back into place and nodded enthusiastically.
Little Red Riding Hood scurried backstage to finish putting on her costume. Without missing a beat, Frechette sprung into action, mounting a crate to turn a simple mud hut into Cinderella’s castle. This was, she later explained, a set piece yet to come together before opening night.
Enter Frechette’s ambitious vision for Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods (1986), opening to New Haven audiences at Wilbur Cross High Thursday evening.
A community effort with Frechette at its helm, the production is a labor of love. Johnson described Frechette’s impact and initiative as “just amazing.” “Mrs. Frechette came to me and said, ‘this is what I want Cross drama to be,’ and I said, ‘Make it happen!’” she said.
The effort was not without its difficulties. The fledgling drama department has a small budget, bolstered by private donations and Frechette’s and Johnson’s out-of-pocket funds. Frechette planned “crew calls” for set building on the weekends, but only students in carpentry classes were allowed to handle power tools – meaning that she and her husband built the set largely on their own, working in eight-hour blocks on their days off. Because Cross did not have all of the available resources for a musical, she enlisted help from the greater community: Reuben Barnes as the work’s musical director and Luis Rodriguez, with whom she had danced in the New England Ballet, as its choreographer. Add Cross’s own Samara Vaiuso, art teacher by day and scenic designer by afternoon, and the fixings of a musical fell into place.
Frechette gravitated towards Sondheim’s script because it is, in her words, “so relatable.” For audiences familiar with Into the Woods, “relatable” may not be the first adjective to come to mind: a series of musical numbers warn that bad things happen when one tests the limits of nature and invokes magic for private use. And of course, that “anything can happen in the woods.”
What she found so applicable to our world – which appears profoundly mundane when the curtain has closed and the house lights have come back on – was the characters’ ultimate realization that they are much stronger together than apart.
In her director’s note, she stressed the significance of grappling with the piece’s greater underlying issues at Cross and beyond. “While our setting is that of a timeless fairy tale,” she writes, “the themes in Into the Woods are just as current and relevant today – like not realizing how much you need someone until they are gone, confusion and conflict over finding the right person, desiring something to the point of obsession…loss of innocence, controlling parents, dysfunctional families, abandoning fathers, dealing with infertility, post-partum depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses, and finally infidelity.”
As Luis Dejesus, Jordan Lampo, Rosie Ziou and Nielsen Filipe belted, “You are not alone” (video above), it was clear that the words were as much about the cast’s gradual gelling process as it was about the characters, who are being pursued by a giant.
Frechette brings a very “tough-love” approach to directing. “You know what they call tech week?” she asked cast members as they groaned at practicing a standard box step for the second time. A voice from the back murmured “Hell week?” “Yeah. Hell week,” she continued. “But we roll with the punches because we have to.”
The toughness is only a façade: She spends one-on-one time with individual actors reworking scenes until they’re confident, and is known for her 6:30 a.m. – 9 p.m. work schedule.
It has endeared her to many students at Cross. Naomi Hedge, who plays Cinderella’s mother and wants to pursue music education when she graduates this year, said of working with Jennifer: “It’s been great. She’s awesome, and I’m going to miss her a lot. She’s tough because she’s so serious about what she does, but I love that about her. I’m very excited [for the play].”
“It’s hard. It’s really hard. But we did it,” said Luis Dejesus (pictured above), who plays the baker and has held the role of Jack in previous productions of Into the Woods performed elsewhere.
Jordan Lampo, who plays his wife, added: “It’s been crazy and exciting. Sets were constantly being built, donations were flooding in. ... It shows how much progress we’ve been through in one year.” As for the play’s relatability, she agreed with Frechette wholeheartedly. “I want to go into law, and this is helping me see things from other people’s perspectives. I couldn’t thank Jen enough.”
Johnson explained that the new drama department “has been a community shared event spearheaded by Mrs. Frechette. I can’t tell you how many countless hours she has put in. ... When you talk about drama and passion in our students, she exemplifies that tenfold.”
On Thursday night, she will be able to take a seat at the back of the house, watch her hard work unfold, and maybe – just maybe – put her feet up for the first time since about October.
What she really warrants, however, is a bow.
Into the Woods runs March 13th, 14th and 15th at 7:00 each night. Student tickets are $5 and Adults are $10. For those interested in donating, Cross Drama will be accepting checks at the show.