Sometimes the Path Strays from You: INTO THE WOODS at Center Stage

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Sometimes the Path Strays from You: INTO THE WOODS at Center Stage

Posted on March 18, 2012


Lauren Kennedy & Britney Coleman

Into the Woods (in revival at Center Stage in a co-production with Connecticut’s Westport Country Playhouse) is one of that handful of musicals that can truly be called profound.  And small surprise, because its subject, the folklore passed on from parents to children under the deceptively superficial name of fairy tales, is equally profound.  Fairy tales are timeless because the kitchen drudge who yearns to become a princess, the little girl vanquishing a wolf encountered on the way to grandmother’s house, the simpleton who sells the family cow for a handful of magic beans, and their kindred, are archetypes of each of us, at various moments in the trajectories of our lives.  As such, there is actually nothing superficial about them.  By mashing up these stories, composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and book author James Lapine demonstrate the common dynamics in these tales that enable them to speak so powerfully to us.

I Wish

As most theatergoers know, the stories start with a common sense of longing.  As we discover Cinderella (Jenny Latimer), the Baker and his Wife (Erik Liberman and Danielle Ferland), Red Riding Hood (Dana Steingold), and Jack (of Beanstalk fame) (Justin Scott Brown), the common phrase in their song is “I wish.”  To pursue these wishes (to go to the festival, to have a child, to visit granny, to sell the cow), they are compelled to enter “The Woods,” which are far more than any mere geographical Black Forest.  These are simultaneously the place where anything can happen (like the dreamlike forest in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and a metaphor for early encounters with risk and growth that come into each of our lives.  Mostly, things go well for the heroes and heroines, as befits their status in the tales about them.  They not only succeed, but they learn much about the world and themselves, leading to some degree of mixed emotions.  As Red Riding Hood summarizes her encounter with the wolf: “And he made me feel excited/-Well, excited and scared.”  Ditto Cinderella fleeing from her prince: in this version of the story, there is no short-lived pumpkin coach whose expiration forces her to leave the palace, but she simply finds herself unable to process immediately the erotic promise of the encounter and needs to break it off for the moment.

As we proceed, we also learn that these tales are not only about young people finding their mates or coming to terms with their sexuality or starting their families.  They are about age as well as youth, especially the familiar dance of closeness and separation between parent and child.  This is most poignantly true of the Witch (Lauren Kennedy) and Rapunzel (Britney Coleman).  What Rapunzel sees as the mother interfering with her independence and her relationship with her Prince (Robert Lenzi), the Witch sees as protecting her daughter from a terrifying and deadly world.  They are each wrong – and right.

Act I of course ends with all problems resolved, and all the heroes and heroines successful, as the ancient tales ordain.  But Act II is where the real genius of the show goes to work.  Like Act II of the Fantasticks, but far more richly, it takes as its premise the obvious truth that every happy ending is the beginning of another tale, and that when you have nowhere to go but down, down is where you have to go.  Lapine and Sondheim ask themselves and us what these same archetypal characters could tell us about ourselves if they were allowed to play out their strings further, beyond the happy endings.  The answers to that question are what make this musical one of the great evenings of theater.

Act II

The characters are all compelled by circumstances to go back into the woods, and this time they encounter there such things as infidelity, divorce, the death of parents, the death of children, abandonment, catastrophe – and overarching this the absence of a narration (the narrator, played by Jeffry Denman, becomes a casualty) or any other authoritative guidance as to the choices that need to be made.  As one of the characters observes: “The path has strayed from you.”  The unsettling conclusion: “You decide what’s right / You decide what’s good.”

This is all incredibly sad and confusing, not to mention frightening, and yet as the core of surviving characters gels, so does the indomitability of the human spirit they evince.  This story too, it is suggested by the moving final number, CHILDREN WILL LISTEN, should be told our children.

To me, this is Sondheim’s greatest musical.  As great as he is and abundant as are his gifts, he can and frequently does misfire.  But here, supported by Lapine’s flawless script, Sondheim (unlike the characters) never goes astray.  The music is stirring and intelligent, with motifs constantly recycling in ways that directly illuminate the action.  The lyrics are supple and studded with dazzling wordplay, whether it be one-liners (“If the end is right, it justifies the beans”) or tongue-twisters: (“If it were not for the thicket-“ “A thicket’s no trick.” “Is it thick?” “It’s the thickest.”)

Although the acting demands are not extreme, because of the frequent wide and unusual pitch intervals, it does not appear to be an easy musical to sing, and its frequent ensemble numbers call for razor-sharp timing.  Director Mark Lamos keeps everything running perfectly.  Indeed, this is an impeccable production which can stand comparison to the original 1987 cast version (streamable on Netflix, if you care to compare).  In fact, there is actually one member of that cast in this production: Danielle Ferland, now the Baker’s Wife, was the original Red Riding Hood.

I have been critical of Center Stage at times for being too staid and too safe.  And while I won’t say this production takes any notable risks, it goes full-bore, and no one would accuse it of being staid.  As Maryland’s State Theater, Center Stage is supposed to be the benchmark for Baltimore.  With the city’s vibrant theater scene, Center Stage cannot lead from behind, even if its mission surely calls for serving up a good proportion of classics.  This rendering of Into the Woods is exactly the way a classic should be done in this venue: with grace and style: Center Stage at its best.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for photograph

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