Sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees. Up close, the individual pines and oaks—i.e. people, situations, obstacles, or places—take up our forethought of concern in life. Once we step back, maybe even forcefully, the whole picture—the entire, sometimes enchanting, forest—becomes a bit more clear. Stephen Sondheim’s ambitious and lofty 1987 musical, “Into the Woods,” with book by James Lapine, envelops this idea tenfold.
Sondheim and Lapine marry the world of fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm—“Rapunzel,” “Cinderella,” Little Red Ridinghood,” and “Jack and the Beanstalk”—with real hardships. The woods represent life’s journey, as it sucks the characters in and throws tribulations their way to summons a true testament of will and strength. Quite simply, this isn’t a fairy tale wrapped up in a nice bow, as children’s entities like Disney have led us to believe. “Into the Woods” is much darker and deals with heavy material in Act II—the after “happily ever after,” once our characters actually find their wishes come true.
Directed by Jason Aycock for Opera House Theatre Company, the premiere of this show for local audiences is a must-see. Mainly, majestic qualities run rampant throughout and transform viewers into a different world. Terry Collins has built a set reminiscent of The Swiss Family Robinson; a central tree house, complete with swinging bridge, becomes the backdrop of the woods. The world is as fascinating in its sometimes light and frolicky expectations as it is burdened by many dark foreboding outcomes. The central theme of abandonment illuminates its words.
Sondheim makes the actors really work for this show; the amount of syllables and rhymes he crams in the music is staggering. “Into the Woods” is a vehicle to deliver the deep punctuation of burdensome solitude. It’s apparent through the tale of Cinderella and the death of her mother; through the Witch’s concerns over losing her daughter; through Jack’s broken friendship with his beloved milky white cow; through the Baker’s grief over his wife; and through Red Ridinghood’s yearning for her granny. Sondheim tests the balancing act of such treacherous realities with songs of reverence, such as “No One’s Alone,” which reminds us, though our choices are our own, someone always will be on our side. And then he slaps us in the face for a reality check: Others won’t. It’s a one-two punch that feels needed but simultaneously heavy-handed in cliché. However, the masterful music of Lorene Walsh’s nine-piece orchestra makes it easier to swallow.
Made up of characters we all know and love (20, to be exact), the actors culled to portray them seem cast superbly. Paul Teal’s zany, goofy attitude and bumbling presence is an appropriate portrayal of a boy’s immaturity guiding his questionable decision-making. His BFF, the milky white cow, is downright adorable. Kenneth Rosander puppets his way into the audience’s heart most endearingly.
Kendra Garrett-Goehring as Cinderella carries a sense of magic in her every flit across the stage. Her voice, too, is a fantastical entity on its own. She reaches all Sondheim’s extremely difficult crescendos and diminuendos as easily as breathing. (“On the Steps of the Palace” will make every little girl want to climb on stage with her.)
The show has quite a few funny moments, mostly delivered by the wonderfully talented Annie Marsh (some may recognize her from her appearance on “The Voice” last season). The 18-year-old is years beyond talent, not only in her quite mature singing voice but in her grasp of character acting. I love seeing her onstage. Here, she shines in a comedic fashion.
Her nemesis, the creepy-crawly wolf, played by Khawon Porter, wears the best costume of the show, thanks to a talented Debbie Sheu and Juli Harvey. Porter emanates the most hexing power, too. Though a secondary role, he stands memorable thanks to his gravelly voice in “Hello, Little Girl.” While it works, sometimes its shaky baritone mutes enunciation, so listen closely. His sleeping death-match scene with Ridinghood brings hearty laughs, too, and remains my favorite of the whole show. Porter’s bubbly sleeping noises and some great blocking by the director send the scene over the top.
Joy Ducree Gregory is the most delightful to watch on stage above all; grace carries her even as an antagonist. Her witch is perfect! From her hunched-over frame, to her finger-pointing, to her squealy voice, she nails this role. Gregory’s voice is organically powerful in songs like “Stay With Me” and “Last Midnight.” The latter showcases the wonders of great light design, thanks to Dallas LaFon; the sepia tones literally had Gregory glistening in her stunning blue sequined gown. The only downfall: mic troubles. But I can’t think of a better actor for it to happen to, as Gregory’s voice is masterfully verbose. She doesn’t miss a beat when tech issues arise. Hence, the audience doesn’t miss a word.
The Baker and his Wife, played by Jeff Phillips and Heather Setzler, ground the story in an earthly fashion, one Lapine wrote to thread the other famed fairy tales. The plot centers on the Baker and his Wife breaking the Witch’s spell to bear a child. Phillips and Setzler give off the feel of natural married interaction, which also illuminates a power struggle between husband and wife appropriately. Setzler remains restrained in all the right bits to showcase a nurturing, loving woman. So, when she breaks into the funnier segments and the more harsh segments of her role, the impact is greater.
Phillips maintains a frantic energy in some of the “treasure hunt” scenes—a clear metaphor for how a man potentially deals with the idea of becoming a father. Yet, his heartache in “No More” will puncture the soul and act as a poignant reminder that, no matter the gender, there are many facets to a human’s emotional well-being.
The princes of the show, Erik Maasch and Christopher Rickert, offer lovely breaks of light-hearted comedy, as heard in “Agony.” Anne-Caitlin Donohue’s crazed Rapunzel is not forgettable thanks to her many shrieks.
I only have two main complaints with “Into the Woods”: 1. It clocks in at two hours and 45 minutes. Quite bluntly: I don’t have patience for playwrights or filmmakers who can’t wrap up their point(s) in two hours or less. To make it worse, some of the scenes drag. Why? Because Sondheim and Lapine really beat a lot of lessons, morals and character refinement into the script. Therein lies my second concern with the play: It feels preachy and forced at times, as the show throws constant struggles at the audience between confidence and doubt, independence and dependence, trust and mistrust, egoism and humility, vanity and modesty, and so much more.
Even though it’s a lot to take in, hats off to our extreme local talent who pull it off quite well. One weekend is left to traverse into the magical woods. Watch your step; you never know what that forest floor will bring.
Into the Woods
Thalian Hall • 310 Chestnut St.
Sept. 5th-7th, 8 p.m.; Sun. matinees, 3 p.m. • $29