Once upon a time, our parents read us classic fairy tales at bedtime. Golden-haired, apple-cheeked characters such as Little Red Riding Hood personified the forces of good, which always triumphed over dark, hirsute embodiments of evil, such as the Big Bad Wolf. An adult look at the Brothers Grimm, however, reveals complex and sometimes sinister undercurrents swirling beneath the seemingly simple storytelling.
What did the Wolf really want with Granny and Red? Which appetite was he actually looking to satisfy in that lonely cottage at forest’s edge? What motivated Red’s journey in the first place? Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1987 musical Into the Woods pokes into the dark places of childhood stories and comes up with answers that are definitely not for kids. Sondheim, who wrote the music and lyrics, and Lapine, who wrote the book, fracture a fistful of traditional tales and reassemble them into a startlingly fresh take on characters we think we know. And they invent gut-wrenching surprises for what happens after Happily Ever After.
St. Michael’s Playhouse kicked off its summer season with a spirited production of this technically ambitious and musically challenging show. University of Vermont theater professor Gregory Ramos directed and choreographed a well-prepared cast, filled with many returning St. Mike’s summer-stock vets.
Dreams, desires, goals, morals and the distinct lack thereof — all clash mightily as the characters from different tales collide in the blended story’s big, scary, titular stand of twisted timber. The giant trees of Carl Tallent’s elaborate set loomed over the characters’ continually unfolding crises. Coiled with menacing, kinetic energy, the lumber looked ready to spring to life at any moment, like the Fighting Trees that threaten Dorothy and company in The Wizard of Oz.
The forest is one of literature’s oldest metaphorical places in which to get lost and found, and to figure out right from wrong. Dante’s Inferno begins: “In the middle of my journey, I found myself in a dark woods.” The Italian immediately hooks himself up with the ancient poet Virgil to navigate hell’s unfamiliar landscape. Cinderella, Jack (of Beanstalk fame), Rapunzel and the rest of the Woods crew lack a savvy Wizard or sage Roman guide, and have to lead themselves out of danger.
In the original fables, spunky heroes and heroines follow clear destinies — to the Happy Ending. Here, final destinations prove elusive as the characters fumble and stumble, tripping up themselves and one another while pursuing conflicting and changing quests. In the first act, Sondheim and Lapine exploit the comedic side of the characters’ indecision. By the second act, the action grows considerably darker. Confusion leads to chaos and a surprisingly high body count.
In the St. Mike’s production, Act I opened with three giant storybook “pages” on stage. These served as backdrops for a trio of tableaux introducing the show’s principal, intertwining storylines. Cinderella wants to attend the king’s festival at the castle across the woods and get her groove on dancing with the Handsome Prince in a beautiful ball gown. Jack’s mother wants her slow-witted son to sell their underperforming cow, his beloved pet Milky White — a deal he later reluctantly brokers, for some Magic Beans, in the forest.
In a new tale, an impoverished baker and his infertile wife strike a deal with a demanding Witch, whose daughter turns out to be the tower-bound Rapunzel. To remove the curse of childlessness, the crone demands a tribute of four specific items in three days. This requires the couple to venture into the woods to beg, borrow and steal from other characters. Before the couple departs, Little Red Riding Hood drops by to get bakery treats for Granny, who, of course, lives on the other side of the woods.
Because Sondheim and Lapine use familiar stories, they delight in subverting the audience’s expectations by playing with the original plots and manipulating the characters’ motivations. Red and the Wolf engage in risqué repartee. Cinderella vacillates about committing to her royal Mr. Right. And Rapunzel — an emotional basket case from spending her teen years confined to a turret — lets down her hair . . . and gets knocked up with twins.
After characters get what they think they want, at the end of Act I, small fillips of dissatisfaction creep in. Picture-perfect princes and princesses turn out to be men and women with less-than-perfect marriages. (“I was raised to be charming, not sincere,” the philandering Handsome P. admits to his wife, Cinderella.) The moral compromises that led to Happy Endings ultimately undo them, and a vengeful, nearsighted Giant makes the characters pay a heavy price.
At nearly three hours, the show itself is long, and Sondheim’s style lacks the traditional musical’s payoff of big, toe-tapping, hummable tunes. So a successful production must aim for what director Ramos and music director Tom Cleary did, in fact, achieve: Keeping the audience engaged on multiple levels, with captivating visuals, clever acting and spot-on attention to the score’s complex rhythms and intricate lyrics.
Tallent’s gorgeous scenic design successfully fashioned a scary picture-book world: Brothers Grimm with a touch of Maurice Sendak. Stage platforms painted to look like Moroccan leather book spines rested on their sides throughout the forest, and two giant “book” towers flanked the stage. Maroon and teal green were the touchstones of the color palette for the set, as well as for Sarah Moore’s fantastic array of costumes. Wig and makeup design went uncredited in the program, but the Wolf’s sexy salt-and-pepper whiskers and the Witch’s craggy prosthetic chin were particularly notable.
Acting was strong across the board; most of the 17-person company are Actor’s Equity pros. The comic standout was Andrew Zane Fullerton, in his brief, literally sidesplitting work as the Big Bad Wolf. He channeled a deliciously predatory version of sexy: a lovable lupine pedophile wannabe, who naturally gets into the sack with Granny, too.
Fullerton was also terrific as Cinderella’s Prince, a smiling, red-haired rogue who always entered the stage with the flying leap of a fencing master. His comic timing with royal brother Adam Sansiveri, as Rapunzel’s Prince, oozed with self-conscious silliness, especially in their two versions of the song “Agony.” The duet paints love’s two sides: as anticipated, and then as experienced.
Portraying the childless couple, John Patrick Hayden and Andrea Wollenberg gave outstanding performances. As the baker and his wife swirl in and out of the other characters’ storylines, the pair effectively showed how the sturdy, “real” folks try to remain sane while the world grows increasingly bizarre and capricious around them. Hayden’s supple baritone and Wollenberg’s flexible alto provided the anchor for many of the show’s musical numbers.
Sujana Chand made a fearsome, fiery and fetching Witch. She conjured a complex and compelling character, the center of a moral universe where everything is etched in shades of gray. Her smooth, powerful vocals were especially moving when the Witch pleads with her troubled daughter, Rapunzel: “Stay With Me.” As Cinderella, Abby Lee also created a rich psychological portrait of a not-so-simple storybook character. Charlotte Munson — a hoot in last year’s Pirates of Penzance — played drama queen Rapunzel teetering on the brink of sanity with operatic flourish. The girl can scream!
Marc Tumminelli delighted as the slightly dumb Jack. He sang with warmth and exercised a sharp facility (as did most of his castmates) with the fast, often tongue-twisting lyrics. Among the leading roles, the only weak link was the singing voice of Lilly Tobin, as Little Red Riding Hood. Although her high-pitched, nasal tone didn’t undermine her speaking part, it gave a grating edge to her singing performance.
Into the Woods is an adventurous show and the most exciting offering on St. Mike’s summer calendar. The woods confound the “shoulds and shouldn’ts,” the baker’s wife learns, as the characters struggle with endless obstacles — internal and external — on their serpentine, sylvan journeys. Sondheim and Lapine use the world of fairy tales to show us how surprising choices can quickly arise — and that unexpected answers may lurk behind the next tree.
Into the Woods, directed by Gregory Ramos, produced by St. Michael's Playhouse. McCarthy Arts Center Theater, Colchester. June 27-July 1, Wednesday-Saturday at 8 p.m.; matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. $30 ($24 matinees).