The show: “Into the Woods” at the Westport Country Playhouse
First impressions: This musical divides fans of composer Stephen Sondheim and writer James Lapine. While it is widely admired for its clever construction and wit, others find it didactic saying the fairy tale archetypes lack humanity. I disagree. This musical moves me immensely when the production is done right — as it is done here under the sensitive, transformative and heightened theatrical direction of Mark Lamos.
The emphasis is on the profound power of storytelling and the theater’s many ways to make narratives comes to life. The Westport show weaves a special spell that lives between the worlds of wonder and reality. What's it about?: It’s a grand mash of five fairy tales: four classic and one invented by the show’s creators. The characters from the tales of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Cinderella,” “Rapunzel,” “Little Red Riding Hood” and a new one of “The Baker and his Wife.” Each character goes jinto the woods to find fulfill a wish. Each learns a life lessons they never imagined at the start.
Such as?: Happily ever after is a lot of hooey.
But we are comforted and learn from such tales. We learn that there is no single : maxim to sustain you through whatever journey you take, whether its down the yellow brick road, into the woods, or cruising on I-95.
Being a Sondheim/Lapine creation, this intricate weaving of the tales has more than a single moral and is immensely entertaining. The music is bright, bouncy and clever. The terrific performers convey the words precisely, not letting a delightful morsel get lost. The design team embraced the theatricality of Lamos’s concept. (Allen Moyer’s sets, Robert Wierzel’s lighting, Zachary Williamson’s sound and Candice Donnelly’s costumes were all on the same page of this storybook creation.)
But for me it was Lamos’ concept — not to mention his casting — that bringst a special measure of heart to the self-analytical characters and their allegorical dilemmas.
In what way?: It wasn’t just about the story but the story-telling. Where some productions ground the show in The Baker, Witch or Cinderella, here it’s the nominal character of the unnamed Narrator (splendidly played by Jeffry Denman) which ties it all together.
At the show’s beginning, the Narrator enters a bare stage filled with costumed characters lying about like dolls around a play-chest. He reveals a miniature stage set — just like the one he is on — and starts imagining it populated by these characters. Soon he begins to improvise stories seeing where characters and plots take him.
When he exits the stage halfway through the second act, the leaving becomes more than a whimsical twist but rather a dramatic gesture that says the characters — and us — are on our own. It’s a smashing theatrical realization of the Sondheim/Lapine theme.
And the other performers?: Wonderful. But those surprising me more than most are Dana Steingold who is hysterically sassy but also vulnerable Little Red Riding Hood; Lauren Kennedy as the fearsome disfigured witch — and equally imposing in human form (though her transformational costume is a puzzle); Cheryl Stern gets the most laughs I’ve seen from Jack’s Mother; and Nik Walker as the Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince who sings like a dream and is perfect as the handsome heir who “was raised to be charming, not sincere.”
There is also something so right with Danielle Ferland, who originated the role of Red in the first Broadway production, who now takes on n the role of the Baker’s Wife. Her character is wry, solid and no-nonsense (not unlike a Red Riding Hood, grown up) but also not above succumbing to the cult of celebrity (here, royalty) that becomes her undoing.
Who will like it?: Sondheim fans. Those who appreciate richly told tales with sass, silliness and heart.
Who won't?: Those who like their fairy tales simply told, without ambiguity, ambivalence or side trips down the psychological paths of Jung, Freud and Bruno Bettelheim.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: Fractured fairy tales — by way of the magic of the theater —joyously and touchingly told.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot: The show is filled with a series of “moments in the woods,” some hilarious, some dark, some fantastic. But the most poignant for me is when the delightfully quirky Jeremy Lawrence as the Mysterious Man and his son, the Baker (well-played by Erik Liberman) sing “No More.” Lawrence sings it not with a cool ironic distance but instead with the deep and desperate passion of a dead father imploring his son from the beyond to take a different path in life. Ah, fathers, ah, sons.
For the kids?: Though it’s about princes and witches and giants and quests, it’s Grimm in more ways than one. Small children won’t be able to handle the deconstruction and interweaving of these tales — or the length of the show, especially when the musical turns dark in the second act. But this could be a good one for the older kids, especially if your child is one who listens.
Running time?: 2 hours, 40 minutes, including an intermission.
Runs through?: May 26
Information: 203-227-4177 and www.westportplayhouse.org.
Catch me on FOX/CT every Friday morning during the 9 o'clock hour talking to Rachel about what's happening in theater in and around Connecticut. And be the first to know by following me on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/ShowRiz
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