Putting the theatre back in music

Gerald Isaac could have gone to Singapore to play Zazu in The Lion King. Instead, he came to Whitehorse to direct Into the Woods. The fairytale-inspired musical is old hat for the Toronto actor and director.

Gerald Isaac could have gone to Singapore to play Zazu in The Lion King.

Instead, he came to Whitehorse to direct Into the Woods.

The fairytale-inspired musical is old hat for the Toronto actor and director.

He directed it in Victoria in 2005.

That’s why Guild artistic director Katherine McCallum tracked him down and asked if he’d do it again – in Whitehorse.

“Into the Woods is not a musical that is done a lot,” said Isaac.

“It’s too difficult.”

The music is “tricky,” he said.

But the Whitehorse cast is pulling it off.

Isaac even gave Rapunzel a solo, because she showed so much promise.

Cinderella, Jack and the Bean Stock and a wicked witch fill out the cast.

“On the surface it’s a happy fairytale,” said Isaac.

“But Into the Woods has many levels.”

Drawing on the Brothers Grimm, the musical comes with a dark side.

In the first act, everyone gets their wish, said Isaac.

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“In the second act, they realize they need to be careful what they wish for.”

Instead of the traditional forest setting, Isaac has opted to stage the production in a playground, designed by local artist Emma Barr.

“In the playground, we can always be children,” he said.

“It’s a comfy place, even for parents, who you often see sitting on the swings.”

The woods, in Isaac’s production are urban.

“I see it as jobs, city, adulthood,” he said.

Adding contemporary elements to traditional fairytales draws the audience into the play, he said.

“People can relate to it.”

In some cases, parents might relate a little too much, added Isaac.

The play toys with issues of parenting, whether you are good parents, or bad parents, he said.

“In some way, I hope they are impacted by the message that lies underneath the fairy tales.”

Into the Woods starts off with a little girl who’s angry at her mom and ends up running away through a playground.

As it starts to get dark, the little girl turns all the shadowy characters she meets into well-known fairytale characters, to quell her fears.

“It’s a childish theme with deeper levels,” said Isaac.

Parents and children will come away from the production with very different impressions, he said.

The fact it’s a musical should have no bearing on the acting or plot, added Isaac.

“You have to find the theatre in music, and the music in theatre.”

Isaac started singing when he was six.

His dad was a pianist and Isaac accompanied him.

By the time he was seven, Isaac was performing for CBC.

But he really wanted to be a classical actor.

So he studied at the National Theatre School, and ended up in Stratford walking the boards with some of Canada’s stage greats.

That’s where he met his opera mentor – the then-director of the Canadian Opera – and started to sing again.

Before the SARS outbreak briefly shut down theatre in Toronto, Isaac spent two years as Zazu in The Lion King.

He also spent close to a decade on Broadway in New York City.

Directing musicals was the next logical step.

Like opera, people either love or hate musicals.

There is little middle ground.

Part of the problem is characters who suddenly burst into song.

Done badly, this will destroy an audiences’ suspension of disbelief, said Isaac.

“The music needs to come when actors reach a point where they can no longer express themselves with words,” he said.

“The song should be an extension of these emotions and this relationship.”

For Isaac, “opera and musicals are complete theatre.”

Into the Woods opens Thursday, April 13, at the Guild Hall in Porter Creek.

It runs Wednesday through Saturday until April 30.

Pay-what-you-can is Wednesday, April 20.

There are two Saturday matinees, April 23 and 30 at 1 p.m. These will only show the first act – a “happily ever after version” for younger children.

Contact Genesee Keevil at

gkeevil@yukon-news.com