- Courtesy of Robert Eddy/First Light Studio
- Left to right:Aaron Aubrey, Karli Robertson and G.Richard Ames
A narrator says the magic words "once upon a time" and snaps his fingers, sending two dozen fairy-tale characters on quests in a musical that explores what happens before and after happily ever after. In Lost Nation Theater's production of Into the Woods, a seasoned cast emphasizes the laughter and warmth of the 1988 Tony Award winner.
Stephen Sondheim's music and lyrics and James Lapine's book use classic fairy tales to exemplify essential longings, adding a modern dose of irony and a playful spin on structure. The plot is crammed with obstacles, but they operate like pinball bumpers — what's interesting is the constant change in fortune, not the problems themselves. The villains, from vengeful giants to hungry wolves to nasty stepmothers, descend from the Brothers Grimm, as do the heroes.
Lapine creates a fable of his own to anchor the story. A Baker and his Wife discover they've been cursed with childlessness by their neighbor, the Witch. In exchange for four items, the Witch offers to lift the curse. What the couple must collect are the signature tokens from four fairy tales, so they set off and find themselves crossing paths with Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Jack of beanstalk fame.
Plunging into the woods, a host of major and minor fairy tale characters come to life. Sondheim produces a lovely sonic blur of desire in the blockbuster Prologue with nonstop segues through a dozen melodies to introduce them all, each brandishing a dream that begins, "I wish."
Staging the action for 20 actors and five braided plotlines in Lost Nation's small, three-quarter-round space is a challenge, but director Tim Tavcar and choreographer Taryn Noelle establish a buoyant pace in an exuberant production. Tavcar's blocking doesn't always clarify the story — such as who dies and when — but he marshals big-cast movement with aplomb.
For all its charms, the musical is needlessly overstuffed. Lapine's labyrinthine plot never gives the viewer time to form strong connections to any character, and Sondheim's score is filled with melodic phrases that seem to succeed one another before each has really flourished. For all its virtuosity, the score has a pesky quality, repeating that "into the woods" phrase like a ruler across our knuckles lest our attention wander. And, with at least one change in tempo or key in every song, the music is both dazzling and demanding.
Still, the concept is stunning. Act 2 picks up where happily ever after leaves off. If the first act's wishes were about growing up, the second's problems are about being an adult. This time, going into the woods means facing up to troubles without easy solutions. The themes are richer, and Sondheim saves most of the best numbers for last.
In "No One Is Alone," the powerful pre-finale song, four characters face the fear of life without a parent to guide them. Up to this point, Sondheim has filled the margins of the story with cynical wit, but here he unleashes a stirring and hopeful testament to community and generational continuity. This production gathers force while planting that sweet seed of optimism.
Sondheim's musical construction relies on a sparkling simultaneity, with multiple emotions gushing out at the same time as he weaves vocal lines of contrasting melodies. One of this production's strongest moments is the finale that blends five of the tunes and all of the stories' outcomes. Tavcar uses space like a champion, setting all the characters in motion on two stage levels.
Lisa Jablow leads a seven-instrument chamber ensemble playing above the stage, facing the audience. Lyrics are tough to hear in this production due to the placement of the musicians, the vocal limitations of some performers and the staging that aims voices in multiple directions. Some nuances are lost, but the spirit of the show comes through.
Nick Wheeler, as the Baker, gives the production enormous warmth. His vocal power is wonderful in its own right, and he's a singer who knows how to let emotion overwhelm him a bit as he dramatizes the story in a song. Carolyn Wesley, playing the Baker's Wife, is equally adept at singing and mining the comedy in her character. She's a fountain of rich comic takes who also hits the darker, dramatic notes.
Aaron Aubrey plays Prince Charming with wonderfully offhand conceit. G. Richard Ames moves with lithe energy, bringing a dancer's poise to Rapunzel's Prince. Their duet in "Agony" is a show highlight; after extolling romantic torment in Act 1, they reprise the number to glorify philandering in Act 2.
Cinderella (Samantha Gunn) stays unflustered when Prince Charming pursues her, taking stock instead of swooning. Her stepsisters (Miranda Morgan Scott, Kira Johnson) cleverly underplay their villainy, while her stepmother (Maggie York) is a cool, collected tyrant.
Jacob Minter is boyish and impulsive as Jack, but Brooke Mayberry steals a lot of his scenes. She plays his best friend, the cow Milky White, with an animal's straightforward intensity and some marvelous bovine sprawls upon the ground. Karli Robertson develops Little Red Riding Hood into a plucky powerhouse.
As the Witch, Kathleen Keenan particularly shines in her final number, "The Last Midnight," a despairing look at what happens when wishing stops.
Designer Mark Evancho's set is an effective, understated open stage and a back wall spanned by a second level that's fronted by stylized trees. Evancho supplies the forest's mystery through lighting, while Will Davis' sound design hints at what hides there. Emily Reynolds' costumes embody each character's archetype.
The musical's unifying theme is the relationship between parents and children, exaggerated to silliness in Act 1 and sorrow in Act 2. Interlocking the stories gives simple problems the illusion of complexity. Ultimately, keeping track of the plot is like trying to count the tosses a juggler makes. But if the storytelling is overgrown, the forest remains a well-manicured mirror of the psyche, and the musical's overall vision is delightful.