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Into the woods, where nothing’s clear,
Where witches, ghosts, and wolves appear.
Into the woods and through the fear
You have to have to take the journey…
Into the woods, then out of the woods
And happy ever after!
-“Ever After,” Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim
When Into the Woods first opened on Broadway in 1987 it was packed with star power. The musical even managed to hold its own during a The Phantom of the Opera-dominated Tony season, winning several awards including Best Score, Best Book, and Best Actress in a Musical.
Since then, the beloved Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine creation has been re-envisioned countless times with great success around the world. During the 2002 Tony Awards, the production won Best Revival of a Musical, as did the 1998 West End production at the Olivier Awards. Most recently, the Public Theatre celebrated a triumphant 2012 run, and the upcoming film version starring Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp is the hotly anticipated movie of the year.
All of which solidify the piece as an iconic staple in the musical theatre canon. Yet, unfortunately, in the case of Twin City Stage’s lackluster production of Into the Woods, it was hard to see the forest for the trees.
All of the essential story elements remain intact. It tells of the dark and mature intermingling of classic storybook characters, such as Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood, as they experience lust, woe, love, and magic deep in the mystical woods. All of the many characters initially embark upon their own familiar storylines, which audiences have for generations come to love, yet eventually they are forced together for the sake of their collective healing and survival.
It is important to note that when performing any piece of Sondheim – where every lyric, arc of line, and chord progression is complex – it must be handled with immense attention so as to reflect the psychological layers embedded in the music. There is no song that can simply be sung, no words lost or altered, and every musical moment is a rich monologue to be acted with honesty. It is the brilliance of Sondheim – just as it is with Shakespeare – that one could easily get lost in the beauty and musicality of a piece without observing the poignancy and depth of what is actually being expressed just underneath the surface. With that in mind, this production was plagued with an assortment of missed opportunities to highlight the gravitas nature of the story.
In the number “Hello Little Girl,” performed respectfully by David Joy as the Wolf, the numerous sexual undertones were approached with safe distance. At first glance the song is about a hungry animal interacting with a potential meal. Yet when explored more deeply, it speaks of carnal ravenous desires coupled with innocence and a budding awakening of sexuality. The mental break and subsequent suicide of the witch played with disappointment by Ashley Pearson was glossed over and easily missed in the number “Last Midnight.” Even the potentially tear jerking and most recognized number “No One Is Alone” failed to provoke the emotional heartache of the two grieving children, recently orphaned, in which the song is meant to console. The lyrics, “People make mistakes, / fathers, mothers. / People make mistakes, / holding to their own, / thinking they’re alone,” speak directly to Sondheim’s own tremulous relationship with his mother that was never resolved by the time of her death. Although Sarah Jenkins as Cinderella and David Nichols as the Baker have beautiful voices, the execution of the number never achieved the impact of its capability.
Such inconsistencies of the cast were most prevalent when compared to the praiseworthy performance of Mary Lea Williams as the determined and lovable baker’s wife. Williams brought precise timing to the character’s witty dialogue, and conveyed heart and authenticity while also showcasing her strong signing voice. The duet “It Takes Two,” sung by Williams and Nichols, was a highlight of the show. Carlo St. James as Rapunzel’s Prince and David Joy in a dual performance as Cinderella’s Prince were especially noteworthy. The two brought strong voices and clear acting choices that made the production dynamic. The song “Agony” was nothing short of a delight to watch.
Yet even with such stellar standouts, and a highly talented creative team, it is very difficult to forgive the mishaps that occurred throughout. There were scenic pieces that unevenly hovered above the base of the stage, poor amplification of the actors with an unbalanced sound system, and continuity issues (at one time in the second act, the blind stepsisters disregarded their need of their walking canes and navigated off the stage unassisted) further undercutting the effectiveness of the production.
The reason the stories and characters featured in Into the Woods continue to be passed from generation to generation is not simply because they make good bedtime reading. Under the approachable veil of a children’s tale, they hold a magic mirror up to society, asking, “What is morality? What are its rewards and consequences? Can it be flexible?” Despite the merits of noted individual performances, Twin City Stage’s Into the Woods showcases that it is not enough to have a good story to make impactful theatre. Neglecting to blaze a trail of truth, with a picnic basket of heart in tow, this production seemed to get lost in the forest.
Into the Woods continues through Sunday, September 28. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.