‘Into the Woods:’ Out music director Evan Rees leads a fairy tale life


EVAN’S BACK: Conductor Evan Rees sits at the piano throughout the performance of the new minimalistic staging of ‘Into the Woods,’ which settles into the Winspear this week


SCOTT HUFFMAN  |  Contributing Writer

Ordinarily, conductors of musicals perform their duties with their backs to the audience and their heads barely visible, standing vigil in an orchestra pit. But that’s soooo last millennium. In a new production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, created by the Fiasco

Theater and coming to the Winspear for a run starting this week, out music director and pianist Evan Rees is put squarely onstage throughout the entire two-and-a-half hour performance.

“It’s a big part of the set,” Rees says of the show’s upright piano, where he sits and plays. “It gets used a lot and climbed on and all sorts of stuff. And I’m playing it mercilessly the whole time.”

This is just one element of this version of the hit riff on fairy tales, which has been hailed for its minimalism. The show employs only a handful of actors, most of whom take on multiple roles. The set, costumes and props are simple and understated, a creative decision that makes the show almost entirely actor-driven and encourages audience imagination. But these artistic decisions should come as no surprise from a theater company that is widely known for its Shakespeare productions.

“I think what makes this interpretation special is that we’ve done away with a lot of the spectacle,” Rees explains. “What you are left with is the beating heart at the core of the show. And it really lays bare all of the human experiences that are going on with these characters. I think it makes it that much more relatable and also moving.”

Without question, Into the Woods — with music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by James Lapine — is an intricate show. It interlocks aspects of several familiar fairy tales and explores multiple themes. For this reason, it is difficult for Rees to pinpoint one part of the story that most resonates with him … or even to pick one song that is his favorite.

“I feel like one of the most amazing things about this show is that depending on where you are in your life, or even where you are in your day or your week, there is something different for you to cling to,” Rees says. “One of the reasons I’m not even close to being bored with the show is that every day something slightly different about the show hits me in a different way.”

For Rees, the most exciting part of working with this particular company is the idea of being fully immersed in the production. By performing alongside the actors, he feels his involvement is more than simply musical. In fact, Rees is the only person who never once leaves the stage during the entire performance.

“I guess for me, being able to actually be up onstage with the actors makes it a much more visceral experience so that it almost allows me to feel like I’m a character who is contributing,” Rees says. “It’s amazing and something that you really don’t get as much if you are just in the pit.”

But this level of involvement also exacts a physical toll. Every performance requires high levels of focus, energy and intensity. And the score is not exactly an easy one to play.

“This production in particular is exhausting,” Rees explains. “When we are on the edges of the stage — not in the scene that’s happening — we are making sound effects or playing instruments. And when [the actors] are not doing that, they are watching and throwing all their focus into the show.”

While Into the Woods does not directly address any LGBT issues, Rees finds that many of the show’s messages have universal appeal.

One in particular is the theme of community. While the show’s characters spend a great deal of time bickering, they ultimately learn that to solve their problems they must work together.

“I think something really important to the gay community is just that — the idea of community,” Rees says. “I think sometimes we struggle with making sure that we are coming together and being inclusive of everybody. That’s one of the things the show really drives home. The idea that you have to come together and let everyone contribute what they can contribute and find your way out of the woods, so to speak, as a team.”

As for finding success in musical theater, Rees offers simple guidance. Once again, he emphasizes working as a community.

“The best advice is just to be nice and to be a good person,” Rees says. “Especially in theater, if you are not nice or you are unpleasant to be around, nobody wants to work with you. And why should they? You create this collaborative art. It’s not about you or anyone else, it’s about what you are creating together.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 12, 2017.