By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
It wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that in 1987 composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim became totally fed up hearing people bitch that his songs weren’t “hummable” … so he wrote Into the Woods. The score features some of his “catchiest” numbers … and you not only leave the theater humming the title tune, it follows you to your car, into your dreams and wakes up you in the middle of the night. “Into the woods/and down the dell./The path is straight/I know it well.”
It could drive a person crazy!
In 1976 Bruno Bettelheim wrote The Uses of Enchantment, a psychoanalytic exploration of fairytales and their deeper meanings. A few years later, Sondheim, along with writer/director James Lapine, used some of the ideas behind Bettelheim’s work to create a new musical about well-known Grimm Brothers characters. In the resulting show Little Red Ridinghood, Jack (of Beanstalk fame,) Cinderella, Rapunzel – along a newly created Baker and his Wife – head into the woods to fulfill a wish. They bump up against one another, and a Witch with her own agenda, and by the end of Act One, the good people get their wish, the bad are punished and everyone lives happily ever after.
Or do they?
Into the Woods continues through February 29. Carnegie Mellon University, Oakland. 412-268-2407. www.drama.cmu.edu
Here comes Act Two – what we might call “Revenge of the Unintended Consequences.” Lapine and Sondheim are warning us to be very careful about what we wish for since there’s no telling what’s set in motion in the process. For example; in the first act Jack chops down the beanstalk and kills the giant. In the second act Mrs. Giant comes down from the clouds demanding justice for the murder of her husband and threatening the lives of everyone in the kingdom.
At the time of its Broadway debut, folks were calling the show an allegory for the HIV/AIDS epidemic; to the best of my knowledge Sondheim and Lapine never said officially one way or the other. But Into the Woods has become one of Sondheim’s most frequently produced musicals – until we get to the darker parts of the second act, most of Into the Woods is a fun and funny, clever and very tuneful romp in fairytale land. (As opposed to the usual Sondheim musical which starts dark and gets devastating.)
Though it’s not my favorite Sondheim, I will say after having just seen a handsome, sturdy production at Carnegie Mellon University, it may be the most “Sondheim” of Sondheim shows. Into the Woods is a monument to the one thing Sondheim writes about more than anything else – Ambivalence.
In most musicals, you immediately know who are the goodies and who are the baddies. Everybody’s motives are clear-cut, clean and obvious and you know, by the second act curtain, it’ll all be tied up in a pretty bow.
Nothing Sondheim has written is ever that simple and Into the Woods glories in its own ambiguity. All motives are conflicted; the goodies do bad things for good reasons, the baddies, seeking happiness, create misery for the good and, if you’re lucky, by the end you come to understand that good and bad can often be the same thing.
CMU director/choreographer Matthew Gardiner delivers a strong, to-the-point reading of the show, keeping the storyline front and center and, along with music director Rick Edinger and the orchestra, gives the score the vibrancy it demands.
Gardnier’s cut out a few characters, nothing major but it is curious. And Katherine Sharpless supplies a very attractive setting – it’s a broken down, overrun cottage where the Narrator begins the tale, here he’s the Baker’s son revisiting his childhood home. Unfortunately, the set doesn’t change and the action takes place in this one venue. I’d suggest that it’s not called Into the Living Room and we miss the point of what all that fecundity written by Sondheim, Lapine, Bettelheim and the Grimms represented. But I don’t want to carp: I’ve seen “visionary” directors do far worse than this to Sondheim.
Allison Ferebee is a fierce presence as the Baker’s Wife, playing the role with an indelible intelligence that illuminates every scene with Ben Cherington as the Baker providing a sweet counterpoint. Lauren Medina takes no prisoners as the fearless Little Red and Hagan Oliveras is touching as the muddled Jack.
The song “Agony” and its reprise is a musical comedy gift Sondheim has written for the actors playing the two Princes and Trevor Clarida and Patrick Voss Davis take full advantage. And once Cate Hayman manages to ditch some ill-advised Witch makeup she sings with a glorious voice and sends “Children Will Listen” up to the heavens.