Back to the Wood

into woods mac

Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Into the Woods’ may be one of the most meaningful musicals in my life, so when a new production trundles along, I’m always interested in how it will be executed. I first saw a touring production right after it debuted on Broadway in the late 80’s. I was not much more than a kid then; it spoke to me on a superficial level, but even at that young age I knew there were darker themes and deeper meanings to this traipse through the forest.

As a typically-tortured angst-ridden teenager, I wore the cassette tape of the Broadway recording down to nothing, playing it over and over and intoning the wit and wisdom of Sondheim, each lyric revealing something more with every listen. My family felt distant at the time, not knowing how to come to terms with a gay son, and I had my own difficulty coming to terms with who I was too. Those themes were felt in the musical. I longed for the sad comfort of ‘No One Is Alone’ and wept bitterly at the warning (then unheeded) of ‘Children Will Listen.’ One day, I thought, the world would hear my cries.

A couple of decades later, the Broadway revival with Vanessa Williams found me at a different place in life, and in a post 9/11 world the ‘Giants in the Sky’ were very real, and very scary. Suzie and I saw the show in New York (she had been along the first time I’d seen it in the 80’s too) and as we veered into middle-age it seemed to mean a little more, and a little less. Though the movie version was adequate enough, there’s some sort of magic that occurs in a Sondheim musical that can only be conveyed on stage. That magic is evident in the Mac-Haydn Theatre’s production of ‘Into the Woods’ running through August 7. Grab your basket (I’m not afraid to ask it) and rush to get tickets to this production – it’s that good. Adhering faithfully to the original version (with the additional Witch and Rapunzel duet from the 2002 revival) the remarkable direction and choreography of John Saunders makes the most of the theater-in-the-round set-up, immersing characters and audience in the midst of a forest that can go from enchanting to terrifying in a few cunningly chromatic notes.

Anchored by the narrator, the intertwining of fairy tales turned on their head was relatively novel when the musical premiered almost thirty years ago, but it remains a vital reimagining of the stories we thought we knew. More profound re the broader metaphors Sondheim aimed for – and reached – particularly in today’s world, where giants still go to battle, children are still alone and abandoned, and adults are as lost as ever.

Though this is an ensemble piece, each cast member gets to shine – not always the case in such extensively plotted and populated stories. Every character is fully fleshed out, and no one is purely good or evil. A girl in a red riding hood (Bridget Elise Yingling, in a sardonically perky and perfect turn) packs a basket of sweets, but ends up expertly wielding a very sharp knife. A carnally lascivious wolf (Gabe Belyeu, all howling menace and hilarity) wears his desire on the outside with a studded codpiece before his bloody comeuppance. A pair of epaulet-framed semi-clueless princes (Pat Moran in unwavering arrogant excellence and Conor Robert Fallon giving classically handsome Disney face) are as dashing as they are comically dim-witted. A waif of the cinders (Amy Laviolette, in gorgeous lilting voice whether in rags or riches) transforms into a princess but hangs onto her heart. A Baker and his Wife (Paul Wyatt and Libby Bruno in convincing and conflicted form) ground the goings-on with their heart wrenching quest for a child. A narrator ties it all together (Jamie Grayson, doing double duty as the mysterious old man, and indelibly marking his stamp on each) before getting unceremoniously tossed from the proceedings in dramatic Act Two fashion. Finally, a witch (Julia Mosby in commanding, scene-stealing beauty-and-the-beast-in-one-fabuous-diva mode) does more than witches usually do in a much maligned but mostly misunderstood journey of her own.

When this disparate group comes together in song and story, and the fairy tale forest reveals itself to be as dark and scary as the real world, the musical soars in brilliant Sondheim fashion. Wishes are granted, only to turn on their wisher in ways both unexpected and devastating. Children and parents alike are challenged and lost. Love is celebrated, betrayed, mended, and dissolved. It’s an evening fraught with enchantment and tension, fairy tale freedom and very human bonds, and brought to thrilling life with that unmistakable Mac-Haydn magic.

{‘Into the Woods’ is playing at the Mac-Haydn Theatre through August 7, 2016.)

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