From left, Maddie Jewell, Ethan McDaniel, Jennifer Newman and Dennis Beasley. Photo by Richard Green.
By Philip Pearce
SATURDAY’S opening night audience at The Western Stage production of Into the Woods was chock full of kids. A middle school group immediately to my right in row H started the evening off with a solemn warning from two of their teachers: any chatter during the performance and the chatterers would be yanked out and confined to the lobby for the rest of the show, was that clear? They nodded and, like all the other young spectators, became an exemplary audience. Rapt attention during the acted sequences, loud applause and approving whistles at the conclusion of each musical number. They knew a good thing when they saw and heard it, and this production was beautifully sung and acted, a bright visual surprise and an excellent piece of dramatic storytelling.
But I couldn’t help wondering whether all those middle schoolers were there because their elders thought this Sondheim and Lapine musical is a “kids’ show.” Granted, it’s introduced by a nice uncle-like narrator (delightful, sly Tom Kiatta) holding a big bedtime storybook, and it’s peopled with storybook stars like Red Riding Hood (blithe blonde Maddie Jewell), Cinderella (a sprightly and athletic Lara Fern) complete with her snooty step-family (Reina Vasquez, Megan Root and Brenna Sammon), Jack the Giant Killer (an intense and committed Ethan McDaniel), and Rapunzel singing in her tower with the coloratura brio of Corbyjane Troya.
Everybody except Rapunzel, who’s already there and wants out, heads into the woods, Cinders hoping to marry Prince Charming, Red Riding Hood to visit her Granny, Jack to sell his beloved cow. You get the idea. There they meet a nice, disorganized Baker (a bouncy and likeable Dennis Beasley), and his nice, better organized wife (forceful and charming Jennifer Newman). The couple are bent on breaking a curse of childlessness imposed by a neighboring Witch (played like a force of nature by the remarkable Lyla Engeldorn) by bringing her a red cloak, a white cow, a glass slipper and some long golden hair.
And, by the end of Act 1 and despite major setbacks and catastrophes, everybody’s got what they went for. Ranged in cozy complacent clumps they sing out their happiness in a smug little song called “Ever After,” and it feels like The End. But the Narrator who has kept the different stories moving and intertwined cocks an eye and warns: “To Be Continued.”
Because Sondheim and Lapine are too savvy and sophisticated not to know that “Ever After” is quite a long stretch of time. The Woods provide helpful self-discovery, yes, but also some heartbreaking personal defeat, storybook romance but also fierce battles. They’re a place for new ideas but always with background rumblings of a looming danger. These externals bring about shifts and discoveries inside each of the characters as they explore an alien territory.
Cinderella’s Prince Charming, for example, (“…bred for charm not for sincerity”) quickly tires of monogamy and sets out (“Right and wrong don’t matter in the woods…”) to seduce other women, even one from a different story. Rapunzel, demanding release from the heavy-handed parenting of the Witch, finds she has lived so long in her glass tower that she can only traipse up and down the woods screaming out her neurotic rage and frustration. Successfully slain by the doughty Jack, the Giant turns out to have left an even more aggressive widow, who either squashes to death or drops big chunks of forestry on several of the better-known characters. By the end of the play, there are only four adults and one child left alive. I’m no spoiler, so no name tags, but it’s a pretty bleak and reflective ending to what Western Stage has labeled “a grown-up fable.”
What for me was most memorable about the evening was that, visually, this is a minimalist Into the Woods. No grassy dales or bosky woodland bowers, not so much as a single leafy bough or twig anywhere. Everything happens against a background of giant, circular hanging tubes which, if they vaguely suggest huge tree trunks, well, only ones in a space epic. They change color as the action moves from town dwellings to various parts of the woods. When Jack’s Giant and his wife attack, they sway and lurch, loud and menacing. Minimal setting units, furniture and props are moved in and taken off by a busy team of puppeteers, who also operate a life-sized Milky White cow puppet capable of walking, mooing, shaking her head and munching food. The flock of loyal birds who befriend Cinderella swoop and swirl on sticks operated by these four resourceful puppeteers, Jesse Gilpas, Annarose Hunt, Nina Piini and Marcus Pulido. The improv atmosphere and absence of realistic scenery have the effect of focusing more intensely on the story, the characters, and the essentially abstract nature of The Woods.
It would be unfair to praise any single performance in an ensemble of such well-nigh flawlessly cast actors. To a person they move, speak and sing clearly enough to put across Sondheim’s layered and complex score which, as always, eschews easy listening and glib rhymes in the interest of plot and character development. I can only offer praise for those I’ve already named, and then for Sally Burns as Jack’s anxious mother; Jeff Hinderscheid as the nasty old Wolf; Kristi Reiners as Cinderella’s tree-bound real mother; Dale Thompson and Rhett Wheeler, superbly funny as a show-stopping pair of high ego and low intellect Princes; Arlene Boyd as Red Riding Hood’s ill-used Granny and Ken Cusson as a pompous royal Steward.
If Jon Selover’s imaginative direction faltered at all on opening night, it was in an occasional slow pace in cuing in some of the short episodes. There were times when a change from one group of players and their situation to a fresh sequence didn’t happen briskly enough to keep up the high momentum needed for so many concurrent story lines. In the often intense small group moments, characters would have done well to start the next sequence almost before the previous one has ended. The fits and starts, twists and surprises of plot would have worked even better than they did with some brisk attention to entry cues.
It all ends in an ironic reminder to be careful what you wish for because you might end up getting it. I kept wondering if many of those enthusiastic, well-behaved middle schoolers got the message. And then again, maybe I’d be surprised.