THEATER REVIEW: ‘Into the Woods’ captures magic of Sondheim’s classic

Into The Woods / Mac-Haydn Theatre

STORY, STORY, STORY! Using a lot of traditional fairy tales, the musical “Into the Woods” by Steven Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (book) light-heartedly goes into dark places–and never hesitates to romp in a clearing. It has every kind of familiar human being that populates our planet; and it exposes more about them than you can possibly absorb in one sitting. It reminds us with laughter, horror and lumps in our throats what funny, wicked, stupid, resilient, loving, striving, prideful, clever, murderous, generous, lecherous, weak, resourceful, moral, and perhaps a bit spiritual creatures we are.

Inside the Mac-Haydn Theater it’s a blue forest with murky trees and an occasional white birch. Are these Freudian woods? Fantasy places? Troublesome real-world places where one becomes “educated”?

Sondheim’s opening vamp is not the lazy repetition of pop and rock. It is a harmonically captivating vamp of daily life, quotidian chores, optimism, the constant need to meet crises and keep marching. Or maybe it’s just harmonically captivating.

Humorously sexual (and other) themes suggest Freudian paths to knowing, although knowing in these woods is never for sure.

A lecherous Wolf with a hunger for little girls is a powerful force in the woods. At Mac-Haydn, Gabe Belyeu’s Wolf, in his leather jacket, tight pants, and rhinestone codpiece, is all danger and allure. Red Riding Hood, played by Bridget Elise Yingling (she of excellent acting and irritating voice), is converted to cautiousness by her new knowing.

The adultery of the Baker’s Wife gives her both regret and a kind of joyous reconnecting with some part of herself. In one of Sondheim’s most beautiful duets, “It Takes Two” she returns to a loving husband with refreshed appreciation. Of course, the couple quickly returns to bickering.

In the woods and elsewhere the longing to create and raise a child is almost universal. Without it, some feel cursed. The child-quest is the chief engine of this story, story, story. People do what they must to have and preserve a child.

Mothers get their lumps for holding offspring in too tight a grasp. Jack (of beanstalk fame), nicely played by Stephen Miller, is a mother-victim. Jack is attractively dull-witted; and, though he matures (sort of) in Act II, he finds that a certain kind of woman is willing to fill in for mom.

The Witch is a mother with magical powers. She imprisons her daughter (to protect her) and is herself locked up in witchness by an overwhelming need for revenge. She is well played and beautifully, musically, powerfully sung by Julia Mosby. The roundness of the stage robs Mosby of the impact her transformation deserves; but who cares when the songs “Last Midnight” and “Children Will Listen” come rolling from her soul?

Pat Moran and Conor Robert Fallon (the Princes) get to sing the compelling satirical song “Agony.” Appropriately handsome they are, but they need to find a source of superciliousness that is beyond posturing.

Amy Laviolette’s beauty and vocal prowess is perfect for Cinderella. With a handsome prince, she acquires status and riches. Guess what she discovers? …and whom she banishes?

The Mysterious Man, played by Jamie Grayson (who is also the Narrator), appears to be half father and half woodland spirit. Our human need for both gets a short-but-telling exclamation point when, at the end of the play, he scurries across the stage to exit humanity. The baker grabs him and draws him back into the group, a group that stands for all humans, a group pulling together but much diminished by deaths and Giant mishaps.

The destroying Giant (voice of Kelsey Woods) and her spouse may make one think of fate, nature (which has been robbed!), random deaths, bombs, plagues, tsunamis—disasters that are almost beyond human manipulation. Or maybe she is just a story Giant.

But best of all are the Baker (Paul Wyatt) and his Wife (Libby Bruno). “Decent” seldom comes in a package so attractive, so important, so without falseness as the Baker as played by Wyatt, my hero. I loved the original actor (Chip Zien), but Wyatt is better. Luckily he is stage-married to Bruno, who creates a full and lively person and sings beautifully.

When you see this show, do cherish Sondheim’s sly and witty lyrics. To get into the woods you must attend to lyrics.

Direction by John Saunders is inspired. Bodies make satisfying pictures, free and silly pratfalls, and smooth, dancerly movements, all integrated with character. He has aided and abetted a talented cast to bring depth and specificity to Lapine’s overstuffed plot.

At the start, Lapine’s long exposition is a bit tiresome. But the Narrator/story-teller (Jamie Grayson) fully “takes stage.” (He may remind you of a vigorous Teddy Roosevelt.) And though threatened with murder, he survives. We’re glad, aren’t we?

All is embraced in the music-magic of Steven Sondheim. (I defy people to go home without Sondheim’s relentless, quirky march in their ears.) The score has beautiful ballads and funny songs with outrageously repeated rhymes. The composer knows how to borrow the language of “serious” American composers of the 20th century and blend it with musical theater traditions. Out of it comes genuinely intriguing, entertaining art.

At Mac-Haydn Sondheim’s score-for-small orchestra is mostly synth-piano, but not even an electronic sound can do it much damage. As usual musical director Josh D. Smith has honed the vocal ensembles and ensured that Sondheim’s piquant, wordy lyrics are intelligible. He has a keen ear for the flow of the drama.

Director John Saunders has outdone himself, and he and his stunning cast have unlocked all the fun and unsettling wisdom of one of the best pieces of musical theater in existence.

This production is spectacular. For “goodness” sake, go see it!

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