‘Into the Woods’ — strong cast, exceptional music
winchester — Once upon a time, two brilliant men collaborated on a bedtime story musical.
Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (book and direction) combined “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Rapunzel.”
All of the characters come together in one tale of dreams, wishes, and magic — and what happily ever after might really mean. The Tony award-winning play “Into the Woods” is the result.
The musical opened in 1987, running for 764 performances on Broadway. A revival was introduced in New York last August. With an ensemble cast and familiar characters, “Into the Woods” has become a standard for regional and community theaters. It opened Thursday and continues this weekend at Shenandoah University.
Professor Jonathan Flom directs the SU production. In Flom’s program notes, he states that this musical “. . . resonates on so many different levels. Its depth is bottomless . . . within the cleverness of the lyrics, the melodies, and the orchestrations. But it also plays well on the surface.” These words explain the popularity of this show for ages 10 and older.
Two of the area’s most respected talents anchor the musical on the stage and in the pit. The charming James Laster captivates with perfect timing and intriguing timbre to his voice — both speaking and singing — as he portrays the Narrator and the ‘mysterious man in the woods.” A chance to see Laster on stage is worth the price of admission.
Musical Director Thomas Albert continues to bring his incredible knowledge of music as a composer, arranger, and conductor to each show. It is a savvy move by director Flom to choose these two local favorites in addition to his ensemble.
With 23 talented music theater students, the show is well- cast. Standouts include the Baker’s Wife (Chelsey Jean) and Cinderella (Rachael Haber). Also delightful is Little Red Ridinghood (Rebecca Kaz); she is small, perky, and animated.
Capturing hearts is the cow Milky White. Spencer Streno, under an “udderly” goofy-looking costume, gives the cow personality and emotions. Kudos for this ability and the zany costume.
The transformation of the Witch (Victoria Crump) from old, ugly and evil to the beautiful, distraught Mother of Rapunzel appears to be a strenuous role to play. The bulky witch costume and mask sadly muffle some of the lyrics prior to her transformation; the audience learns Cump is a lovely young woman with an appealing voice once the witch outfit is removed.
Among the male characters, the Baker (Evan Baranowski) and Jack (Brandon Shapiro) merit special applause. Their roles are huge — not only songs and dialogue to make their own and much staging to learn, but also to keep true to their characters’ personalities. Each exhibited ease on stage through the 21⁄2-hour show.
Here is a brief synopis of “Into the Woods” — avoiding key details to prevent spoilers:
In Act I, the story focuses on the Baker and his Wife, who are trying to have a baby. In order to do so, they must undo a spell cast on them by the Witch. The couple must go “into the woods” to collect the ingredients for a reversal potion.
The other characters (noted above) are in their own stories, but each has one of the ingredients of the potion which the Baker and his Wife must obtain. At the end of Act I, the curse is lifted, Jack has killed the Giant, the Wolf is dead and the Princes have found wives. So it should be that they are ready for Happily Ever After. Maybe, maybe not.
In Act II, all the characters begin to deal with the fact that their decisions (or lack thereof) have consequences. The Giant’s Wife is angry that her husband has been killed, and she has descended a new beanstalk. In retaliation, she is now destroying the village. The characters flee “into the woods” to escape her.
Much squabbling and finger-pointing ensue — along with a tryst or two — as the characters blame each other for everything that has happened. Finally, with some grace, they learn to take responsibility for their actions and work together to kill the Giant’s Wife — which they admit has a moral dilemma of its own.
The song “Your Fault,” includes clever patter with Jack, the Baker, the Witch, Cinderella and Little Red Ridinghood all singing at each other, describing why the revenge of the Giant’s Wife is someone else’s fault. This song becomes the vehicle through which they realize each has had a part to play in the destruction of their own lives as they once knew them.
The axioms from “Into the Woods” are often short and pithy. Some examples: “A slotted spoon can’t hold much soup,” “Scary is exciting,” “Sometimes the things you wish for are not to be touched” and “The prettier the flower, the farther from the path.” Repeated several times is “If life were only moments/Then you’d never know you had one.” [These are all great discussion starters for the drive home after the show.]
Other musical numbers also show the depth of Sondheim’s lyrics. The Baker’s Wife and Cinderella sing the duet “A Very Nice Prince.” The audience learns that Cinderella is finding that being royal does not mean one has leadership ability, or is exciting, or is one’s true love. Some Southern grandmothers still say someone is “nice” when what they mean is boring, boring, boring.
“Stay with Me” is the duet the Witch sings with her daughter Rapunzel. It is a plea for Rapunzel to remain her dependent little girl. The Witch has kept her locked in a tower away from the world, but Rapunzel is now grown. The trials of motherhood and the need for rebellion by the young are poignantly described in this song.
The theme of the musical “Into the Woods” is sung by the Narrator and the cast. “Into the woods — you have to grope/ But that’s the way you learn to cope. Into the woods to find there’s hope/Of getting through the journey.” Life is a journey, says Sondheim, and made of “moments” — both good and bad ones.
On a final note, praise to set designer Frank Blackmore. His work is meticulously detailed and clever. The trees as backdrop and the story books have wonderful details. They are enhanced with the creative lighting and color choices by Chris Mudie, lighting designer. The sounds of giants walking and magic happenings are from Rob Jones, sound designer.
Costume designer Cheryl Yancy, chose some lovely fabrics for the royals and Cinderella. Jack and the Baker have appropriate costumes and Yancy cleverly and skillfully designed the changes for Narrator to become Mysterious Man.
The Wolf’s and the Princes’ costumes, however, had added “codpieces” never seen in other productions of “Into the Woods” in past years. These new costume elements distracted from each of the characters and his songs and actions.
Whether the attention to the anatomy through this costume detail was for humor or was a suggested design to show virility of wolves and princes in the woods, they turned out to undermine the integrity of the show when they first appear onstage. This show has much that is clever and much that is funny without a nod to slapstick imagery.
“Into the Woods” is a big, long, difficult play with exceptionally good music and clever lyrics to drive the action.
Directors Flom and Albert put together a talented ensemble. The students live up to the expectations of a Sondheim production as well as that of the community which have long enjoyed extraordinary quality from SU Conservatory musicals.
“Into the Woods” will continue through Sunday in the Ohrstrom-Bryant Theatre on the SU campus in Winchester . Performances are at 2:30 and 8 p.m. today and at 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Call the Shenandoah University Box Office at 540-665-4569.