What do you get when Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, and Jack and the Beanstalk all appear in one musical, tied together by an impotent baker and his wife? You get “Into the Woods,” a production that The Park Players, a non-profit theater group with origins in Union City and North Bergen, is holding at the Trinity Episcopal Church in Cliffside Park this month.
The performance is from American composer Stephen Sondheim's original, which debuted in 1987. It mixes the storylines of the aforementioned fairytales with the baking husband and wife, struggling to conceive.
“What happens after ‘happily ever after?’” -- Joseph Conklin
“The first act takes place where all the stories are exactly as we know them,” explained Joseph Conklin, liaison for the Park Players, just before rehearsals. “Cinderella meets her prince. Rapunzel also meets her prince. Little Red Riding Hood goes into the woods and meets the wolf. At the end of act one, they all live happily ever after. When act two takes place, what happens after ‘happily ever after’? What happens to all their lives? It's a story of family, a story of survival.”
The theater group launched in the early ’80s out of Conklin's Union City apartment. They decided to work out of the town's historic “Park Theater” – which gave them their name.
Later, they put on some shows in North Bergen.
“There were 13 of us, and we pulled together $35 each so we could do a show called ‘Christmas in The Park,’ so we would be able to start our own company,” Since their debut, they've never gone a year without producing at least one show.
Their last show at Park Theater in Union City was in 2004, after which they became a traveling group, performing at small theaters and churches through the county.
“We did shows in Weehawken, we did shows in North Bergen,” explained John Fiorenza, assistant director for the group. “We did Steel Magnolias out of a beauty salon in North Bergen.”
Conklin is a retired Union City schoolteacher, having worked in the district for 36 years. His final position was as a drama facilitator at the Woodrow Wilson School.
Marge Falbo, who works as a secretary for the group, is also a retired Union City teacher, having worked there for 29 years under Joseph's drama department at Wilson. “We did many, many shows with the children at that school,” she said.
The two educators—both born and raised in Union City--integrated the school's curriculum with drama, music, and dance. “It's still there,” Conklin proudly noted. Both educators have won Teacher of the Year awards twice in the district. Conklin won the “Teacher Artist of The Year” in the town in 2015. He was also in the “Passion Play” there for 27 years.
“Our roots came from Union City, from Hudson County, Marge said. “We did many years and shows and venues there, too.”
Other Hudson towns have touched the Park Players’ lives. “I worked many years ago with a group called the Civic Theater in Jersey City,” Conklin revealed. The Players also previously worked with a group on Sherman Place, called The Spoc Players, helping direct and working backstage with them.
In Bayonne, Conklin played King Charlemagne for The Center Players. The group has also sung in Newport Mall, and the Mall at Mill Creek in Secaucus.
Actors who perform in the plays have to audition first, but once they get in, the group strongly encourages them to provide any ideas they may have.
“We're always open to suggestions,” Conklin said. “We're never like, 'Oh, no, it has to be done that way.' And that's what helps, because we're able to give each other ideas and just blend it. We have to keep the arts going. We need the people who don't get it in the high schools, in the community.”
Melissa Montijo, 13, who plays Red Riding Hood, described the character's role in the play as “feisty, bratty, and she's kind of sensitive, but she builds up these walls to protect herself, really. If you push her buttons, she will be a brat to you. At the end, she realizes the real world out there, the dangers, and maybe that wolves shouldn't be trusted.”
Montijo, who grew up partially in Union City and attended Woodrow Wilson, has been with the Park Players “pretty much since the day I was born.” (Conklin held her as an infant during a show in 2004.)
She previously played Annie in their last spring performance, Snoopy in their Charlie Brown musical, and has auditioned in New York for other performances. Montijo is also a junior board member of the Players.
An acting career could be in her future. “I listen to a lot of Broadway music all the time,” she said. “I memorize pretty much everybody else's roles.”
“Rapunzel's a lot of fun,” said Alice Gabrielle, who plays the character in the play. “It's the basic Rapunzel story, weaved in with the story of the baker and all the other characters in this play.” Gabrielle is currently pursuing a career in musical theater in New York City, but has a day job as an ESL teacher to make ends meet.
She just began an intensive four-week actor training workshop to better her skills. Explaining why people need to see “Into the Woods, she said, “You cannot miss this show. If you have never seen this show, even if this production was half as good as it is, the show is such a great show. Plus we have amazing talent in the cast. Everybody's really great.”
“The baker's wife and the baker are sort of the couple that tie all the fairytale characters together,” said Erin Sauter, who plays his spouse.
“She, in the relationship, is kind of the stronger of the two; she kind of wears the pants and is very decisive about what she wants, and is very clear in her thinking. It's a very fun character to play. She's not afraid to do what she has to do to get what she wants, which is to have a child with her husband.”
Sauter has a full time job outside the acting industry, calling “Into the Woods,” a “fun passion project for me. I prefer doing it just where I can enjoy it and have fun, and not have to rely on it for a paycheck.”
To purchase tickers, contact 201-941-6030 or 551-206-9772. Trinity Episcopal Church is located at 555 Palisade Ave, Cliffside Park, NJ, 07010. The dates are May 19, 20, 21, 24, 26, and 27.
Hannington Dia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org