Stephen Sondheim‘s Into The Woods (Mu Performing Arts performing at Park Square, through Aug 5) can be, like many late Sondheim works, difficult. The songs, it goes without saying, thrill: Into The Woods contains the moving “No One Is Alone,” the show-stopping “Agony,” the otherworldly “Stay With Me.” Has a better song than “Children Will Listen” ever been written? But Sondheim utilizes a syncopated sprechgesang which gives the show a hard-to-perform formality, a quality often mirrored by the calculated denseness of bookist James Lapine‘s play.
Into The Woods patches together familiar Grimm fairy tales: Rapunzel, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood. Everyone heads to the Woods, an all-purpose, scattershot symbol for that place where people chase (and often get) forbidden things, where they change and “blossom.” Where they make disturbing discoveries. “How uneasy I feel,” says Ms. Hood. We know whereof she speaks.
In Act 1 the plot revolves around the Baker and his Wife and their efforts to obtain Cinderella’s slipper, Rapunzel’s hair, Jack’s cow and Ms. Hood’s famous red cape (a violation, IMO, of the sacrosanct Rule Of Three) in order that the Baker’s Wife might become pregnant. In Act 2, the story turns disquietingly violent: a (female) giant demands, in revenge, Jack’s blood and the characters must find a way to kill her. All these stories sweep and swirl, often entertaining and wonderful, but sometimes muddy and confusing.
So: what does director Rick Shiomi and his merrie cast do, faced with esoteric music and a difficult story? Do they get bogged down in intellectuality? Focus on Joseph Campbellian symbolism? Worry to death the significance of the “Woods”? No. They have at the material with an insouciance and glee that inspires and delights. They have a rousing and infectious good time. This allows us to put Sondheim and Lapine in proper perspective: we take what we want from the play and brilliant music and if from time to time we don’t want to do the work, no worries, the Mu actors will take us on a jolly ride.
The trustworthy Denise Prosek renders the music perfectly and this frees Shiomi and his crew to concentrate on other things.
Where did he get this cast? There isn’t a tinny note anywhere and we’re talking large (20 by my count). They sing brilliantly and they act their hearts out. I could be wrong on this but the opening night performance had the feeling of a show finally and surprisingly coming together and the actors were as amazed and delighted as we in the audience. It gave the evening an especial edge.
I almost feel that if I can’t wax enthusiastic about everyone (and I don’t have room here to do so), I shouldn’t mention anyone. That said, I do have to mention the wonderfulness of Sheena Janson as the Baker’s Wife. If Into The Woods has a lead this is it and Ms. Janson was enchanting; I couldn’t take my eye off her. The sturdy Randy Reyes played the Baker in a state of constant confusion; he made me giggle (he always does) with his crooked grin. Sara Ochs, again, amazed with her utterly honest effervescence. Alex Galick and Eric Sharp delighted as the pompous princes, and Katie Bradley as the busybody witch (who sings perfectly), and Natalie Chung as eerie Rapunzel, someone stop me.
I guess I should mention that, this being Mu, the cast was (almost) all Asian. Which signifies, well, ahem, nothing. Maybe I’ll cut this paragraph, though I should also point out that Shiomi and his excellent designers (led by Gunther Gullickson) have created a lovely Asian-style woods for the show.
A marvelous and entertaining production of a difficult but eminently worthwhile piece. The best summer show I’ve seen, easily. Definitely recommended.
For more information about John Olive please visit his (recently expanded) website.