THEATER REVIEW: ‘Woods’ leaves memorable trail of theatrical crumbs

“Into the Woods” / The Two of Us Productions/ Taconic Hills Central School

ON OPENING NIGHT of “Into the Woods,” after the last notes from the orchestra sounded, many people from the audience stood in the aisles talking. A man gave his companions a puzzled looked. “I don’t get it,” he said.

Given the very numerous plot points, the convoluted connecting strands glued to a number of our familiar fairy stories, and the multiple ethical and philosophical questions exposed, he may have experienced altogether too many “its” for one evening.

In addition to multiple “its,” authors James Lapine (book) and Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) flood our feeble brains with metaphorical speculation. It may be easy to decide that the woods stand for the subconscious and its Freudian/Jungian therapeutic riches; but hundreds of questions remain. Is the giant a god? (Is she fate? Is she a revengeful mother nature, robbed of her possessions?) In life, do mean sisters with cruelty and crummy values often hobble themselves (cutting off parts of their own feet, maiming their connection to the earth)? Does getting what you want (the whole first act) always or usually become boring? How crucial is community to survival? (A question that occupies the whole second act.) Those are a mere sampling.

Was the man in the aisle unconvinced by the notion that wishes granted are mere parents of newborn wishes? Was he overwhelmed by the abundance of psychological and moral pinches and kicks in the shins?

Whatever other satisfactions an audience may grab from a “Woods” evening (the wisdom or the stirring up of old questions), there is Sondheim to be grateful for. Musically, his genius is employing familiar musical tools and shaping them into something inevitable, garden-fresh and organic. He accompanies all that with crystal lyrics. For “Woods,” this composer/lyricist, famous for his sophisticated rhymes, adapts his style to rhymes sometimes suitable to Dr. Seuss. And it’s worth noting that Sondheim, the world’s most grown-up composer of musical theater, has written a work often marketed for its fairytale-kiddy appeal.

Craft plus intense labor plus inspiration equals art; and I predict that Sondheim’s art will be around for my great-great-grandchildren, who will stride into their woods to his brave, insistent marching tune.

The composer’s collaborations with Lapine have always seemed to me diminished by the author’s structural flaws. In this case the rat-a-tat plot rhythms of Act I seem poorly connected to the stretched out plot-legatos of Act II.

By itself, the score has plenty of “it” for any evening. Except for a few spots of out-of-tune strings, Steve Sanborn’s orchestra makes its contribution nicely, well supported by solid keyboards.

Direction is mostly excellent except for Sanborn’s approach in casting and staging of the two princes. For the song “Agony,” the style of humor seems inappropriate, and the actors over-gesture, sing poorly, and generally move about without meaning. Cinderella’s prince, however, in a later scene, becomes a very sexy seducer with surefire moves and better singing.

The women are very strong in this production. Tara Young as Cinderella sings well, moves beautifully and entrances. Newcomer to The Two of Us, Alissa Wyatt, is lovely, lively and interesting. Except for some iffy singing, Betsy Rees is a spectacular Little Red Ridinghood. The ugly old witch garb on Constance Lopez seems to unleash her imagination and freedom, and she does some of her best singing to date.

David Factor as Jack of beanstalk renown is very appealing in his character’s hard-won trip from dependent boyhood to independent manhood.

As the baker, Richard B. Lapo, Jr. sings musically but has apparently decided with the director to make this character deeply affectless. There is a certain amount of sense to that, as it gives the baker some place to go. (Each character achieves a profound change over the course of the play.) Lapo, however doesn’t go there, leaving this reviewer remembering fondly the quirky, touching performance of the original baker, Chip Zien.

The Two of Us productions get more and more professional as time goes on. Watch them evolve. To reserve tickets for “Into the Woods,” Google “The Two of Us Productions.” The show runs through October 19. And, if you can help it, never miss a Sondheim show. Even with flawed structure, there are always extraordinary songs and multiple “its” to get—or not.

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