This is the obligatory spoiler alert at the beginning of the review…although Into The Woods has been around since 1986, so anything I give away here to people unfamiliar with the story can hardly be considered a spoiler. But people keep asking for them so here it is: I’m going to tell you things about this musical, and whether or not you want to know those things before seeing a production of the show is up to you. Read on at your own discretion.
Although the Empire Theatre Company and UND’s Department of Theatre Arts have both mounted productions of Into The Woods within the last year, the tone and style of the two productions were very different. The UND production was a little bit more adventurous in its technical presentation; the costumes by Jacqueline DeGraff were daring and unexpected, infusing more sexuality into the characters (a key element of many of the stories from which these characters derived, especially Little Red Ridinghood) as well as some punk flair and showed how a non-traditional interpretation of the characters could produce interesting dynamics. Less successful was Brad Reisig’s set design that transformed the dark and imposing woods into more of a rolling, hilly playland perfect for the actors’ acrobatic choreography but stripping the titular destination of its usual menace and edge. But even if the show was a bit uneven, it offered a version of Into The Woods with an unexpected flavor and new ways of looking at this oft-produced show.
The Empire Theatre Company’s production relies much more heavily on traditional interpretations of the show: corseted bodices, military uniforms for the princes, and a dark, ominous set representing the woods. All of the characters look and act very much like they’ve just stepped out of a leatherbound copy of the Grimm’s tales, and this production does a good job of reminding us that some traditions exist for a reason. In this case, the reason is that it creates a pretty damn good theatrical experience. More on the production values later; let’s talk about the story and performances.
Into the Woods weaves together four traditional fairytales (Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and Little Red Ridinghood) using the story of a baker (Christopher Olsen) and his wife (Mackenzie Teepen) who have been unable to have children. They come to find that this childlessness is the fault of the Witch next door (Maura Ferguson) who placed a curse on their house when his father stole vegetables and magic beans out of her abundant garden. To lift the curse, they must retrieve four objects familiar to all fairytale readers: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold. They have three days to complete this quest, and so they venture off into the woods…
During Act 1, the stories play out much as you would imagine. Jack (Casey Hennessey) defies the wishes of his gruff by loving mother (Emily Walsh) and exchanges his beloved cow Milky White (Leo Lakpa) to the Baker in exchange for five magic beans. Little Red Ridinghood (Ivy McGurran), is tempted off the path to Grandmother’s (Amy Sanner) house by a charming, unscrupulous Wolf (Adam Giebner) who later consumes both of them. Luckily the Baker, in his quest to retrieve Red’s cloak, is there to lend a hand…and a blade. Rapunzel (Eden Volk) sings from the top of her doorless tower, letting down her hair to the Witch, as well as to a handsome Prince (Seth Cline). When the witch discovers their deception, she exiles Rapunzel (who bears twins) and casts the Prince from the tower, causing him to be blinded, but the two find each other in their wanderings and Rapunzel’s tears restore the Prince’s sight. And poor Cinderella (Therese Kulas), abused by her stepmother (Allyse Hoag) and stepsisters Florinda (Bethany Van Eps) and Lucinda (Juliet Wolfe) and ignored by her doltish father (Gus Tandberg), finds her wishes granted at the grave of her Mother (Emily Holter) allowing her to attend the ball held by Prince Charming (Andrew Holter). The Prince is smitten and chases her for 3 nights, finally spreading pitch on the stairs to snare her, managing to capture only one of her slippers and leading to a kingdom-wide search for his mysterious love.
As the three midnights pass, the Baker and his wife meet, befriend, trick, and bargain their way into obtaining all 4 items needed for the Witch’s potion. Not only does this lift the curse and allow them to conceive a child, but the Witch, once stooped and disfigured, is returned to her former state of youth and beauty. As Act 1 draws to a close it would seem that all the stories are wrapped up neatly with the good and virtuous set to live happily, “Ever After,” and the wicked have been suitably punished (I love that Sondheim and Lapine retained many of the older, grimmer elements of the Grimm tales, including having the stepsisters gets their eyes pecked out by birds). Everyone celebrates their triumphs and joys, and then intermission.
And then the shit hits the fan.
A lot of high school productions of this show only do the first act, so that everything wraps up neat and clean at the end. Life, however, is much more complicated. The Baker and his Wife now have a screaming baby, and while I’m sure they’re still overjoyed at being able to reproduce, Olsen and Teepen do a good job of portraying the tension that comes when the idea of a baby meets the reality of a baby in all its yowling, poop-smeared glory. Cinderella is left behind in the castle as Prince Charming and his brother are off in the forest looking for new adventures (and new princesses) to uncover. Rapunzel, whose Prince is also less than faithful, is adjusting to life outside the tower. Jack, his Mother, and Milky White are living happy and wealthy with their newfound riches, except for that new female giant who has emerged from the kingdom above, angry about the murder of her husband and ready to squash Jack into tiny little pieces. As the giantess roams the countryside, killing Rapunzel and the Narrator and laying siege to Cinderella’s castle, the other characters are at a loss for what to do. As the Narrator (Adam Giebner) explains before being unceremoniously handed over to the giant, the simplistic stories the characters come from have in no way prepared them for critical thinking or for living in a morally complex world. Do they give Jack up to the giantess to be killed? He murdered the giant; shouldn’t he face punishment for his crimes?
Jack’s Mother, trying to protect her son, begins berating the giantess for being selfish; fearful for his own life and for the lives of the royal family as they are traveling to hide in another kingdom, the King’s Steward (Cam Pederson) deals her a fatal blow to the head. Red’s house has been collapsed, killing her mother, and she is once again travelling to meet with her Grandmother, though all of the destruction has made the path impossible to follow (a metaphor for the complexity of adulthood perhaps?). No one can agree on what to do to move forward.
As the characters split up, looking for safety and a solution to their problems, the Baker’s Wife and Cinderella’s Prince meet and have a brief affair in the woods. Afterwards, left behind by the dallying Prince, she ponders what changes she and her husband have both undergone in the woods. Rather than regretting the affair, she appreciates the perspective it has given her about her primary relationship and she realizes “it’s time to leave the woods”; however, in stories such as these women who dare the defy expectations of sexual fidelity are swiftly punished and she immediately finds herself crushed beneath a tree in the giantess’ path.
Characters die, homes are destroyed, and all that the characters thought they knew to be true as they settled into their happy endings is turned upside down. All of the characters, and in turn the audience, must confront the limitations of simplistic stories. Even after the giantess is defeated, the characters who are left must pick up the pieces and forge a new story. The Baker, at first wanting to abandon his son to live with Cinderella in the royal castle, decides to stay after a poignant duet (“No More”) with the Mysterious Man (also played by Adam Giebner) who was earlier revealed to be the Baker’s long-absent father. Red and Jack vow to take care of each other, and inform the Baker that they will live with him and his child. Though he is hesitant, he agrees and also asks Cinderella to join them. This foursome is representative of many of the tropes in fairytales (Cinderella, once the victim of a “wicked stepmother” now in essence becomes a stepmother to Jack, Red, and the Baker’s child) but also can represent a modern family: they have all the makings of a nuclear family (mother, father, son, and daughter) but rather embody the unique relationships found in blended and non-traditional families. Cinderella joins them as a caretaker; there is no suggestion that she and the Baker will become lovers. There are three children in the house, none of whom have the same parents. All are dealing with loss and grief, but they’re moving forward.
What I love about this show is the complexity of the music. There are some great layered ensemble numbers where the harmonies overlap, repeat and break apart in such beautiful ways. “Into the Woods,” the opening number, introduces the main characters and their motivations. Everyone has a clear plan going into the woods and feels secure; they don’t have an accurate understanding of the dangers that could befall them. The first act ends with “Ever After,” another great ensemble piece and my favorite number from the show. It’s bright and cheery and is the perfect cap for those who like their fairytales without ambiguities. The cast does a wonderful job weaving together their voices to create a lovely tapestry of sound.
“So Happy,” the prologue for Act II, is a perfect counterpoint: everyone has had time to settle into their “happiness” and see where it does and does not fit. This song is touched with the sort of dewy regret that comes when we get what we want, only to find that it doesn’t make us feel the way we thought it would; it’s reminiscent of another great Sondheim tune, “Sorry – Grateful” from Company in which a character tries to explain how it feels (for him) to be married:
And still you’re sorry
And still you’re grateful
And still you wonder
And still you doubt
And she goes out
Only maybe slightly rearranged
Why look for answers
Where none occur?
You always are
What you always were
Which has nothing to do with
All to do with her
(Sorry for the gratuitous quoting from Company – it’s my favorite!)
Both songs are about regret without grief, thinking about what might have been. The song is handled deftly by the company, but Kulas’ soaring vocals are definitely a standout, a perfect balance of sweetness tempered by maturity.
I was definitely tickled by McGurran’s rendition of “I Know Things Now,” a fun little song about moving from innocence to experience; the Red Ridinghood story, just in case you missed it, is all about sex: a young girl being warned by her mother not to stray from the straight path, the Wolf tempting her to explore a world of sensual delights filled with blossoming flowers, and the young girl eventually being devoured by this insatiable creature. That’s sex talk. For you Twilight fans, I’ll give you just a moment to process all of the not-so-subtle symbolism surrounding “Team Jacob.” McGurran does a wonderful job of toeing the line between the bratty, self-involved young girl who started the adventure and the more worldly young lady she has become through her travels She delivers the final lines of the song with a sort of winking uncertainty that was delightful: “Isn’t it nice to know a lot? And a little bit not.”
“Children Will Listen” is the perfect ending to the show, reminding us why the stories we tell need to be thoughtful: because “children may not obey, but children will listen.” When we fill their heads with stories about charming princes and maidens who need saving, we set them up for failure. Ferguson has a powerful voice and handles her songs well, but it’s nice to see her have the opportunity for some softer moments, especially during the finale.
Adam Giebner was perhaps the most versatile performer, doing triple-duty as the Narrator, the Mysterious Man, and the Wolf. Although the changes were quick and occasionally one costume would be peeking out from beneath another, he managed to create each character as a distinct stage persona, a feat not easily achieved.
The scene-stealer of the show, however, had nothing to do with vocal prowess; in fact, he didn’t have any songs or even lines at all. But Leo Lakpa’s Milky White was an absolute treat. For someone who spent all of his stage time with a molded mask on his face, he was always expressive and responding to the scene with perfect little touches. When Jack is singing “I Guess This Is Goodbye” as he prepares to take Milky White to market, the cow places a hoof lightly on Jack’s knee, so subtle but so beautiful. As the Baker and his wife reconnect singing “It Takes Two,” Milky White nudges them into a sweet embrace at the song’s climax. Although the costume creates the character, Lakpa used the costume to create lovely little stage moments and bring the beloved pet to life.
Speaking of costumes, it’s clear that ETC put some money into the cast wardrobe as each piece looks expertly crafted for the exact role and they fit the actors perfectly. Whatever rental company provided the costumes should have been credited in the program as they did exemplary work, and looking at them was a reminder of how important the technical aspects are to the overall theatrical experience.
To that end, I cannot say enough about Lindsay Escobar’s lighting design; it was absolutely pitch perfect. She utilized strong, aggressive color washes, cutting the stage into miniature tableaus as the various stories unfolded. There were times where different character groupings seemed to be color-coded: emerald green, a rich yellow gold, a stunning blue. It reminded me a lot of the color-saturated Batman movies by Joel Schumacher, except without being, you know, terrible. Light moved and changed, softening or hardening to create a new moment, just as active and dynamic as the bodies on stage.
My one quibble with the show was the set. I appreciated that it maintained the dark, ominous aspect that the woods are supposed to embody; as much as I enjoyed the UND production, I just couldn’t forgive the light, toothless location in which it was set which proved that even the most reliably talented designers (and Reissig can usually be counted on to thrill me with his constructed spaces) can have an off day. And there wasn’t anything really bad about the ETC set per se, except that I felt like I was seeing the same configuration one time too many. There was a central, elevated platform with two staircases coming off either side at a diagonal and a wooden ladder up the front. If you turned both staircases parallel to the edge of the stage and replaced the ladder with a screen door, you’d have pretty much the exact same set from ETC’s production of The Spitfire Grill; take one staircase away and turn the other parallel to the front of the stage, and you have the hayloft set from ETC’s Spring Awakening. Into the Woods is the perfect opportunity and excuse to play with planes and layers and different fields of vision; in this case, it was a missed opportunity.
Into the Woods was a different choice for the Empire Theatre Company which has made its name producing newer and often edgier works; this felt like a strange departure, a rather safe choice from a company that usually shows more daring. Director Chris Berg, Assistant Director Abby Schoenborn, and Music Director David Henrickson put together a solid, entertaining show, reminding me that a sometimes it’s ok to stick with a classic, well-loved piece of theatre. It was a pleasure venturing back Into the Woods with this talented cast and crew.
Into the Woods has closed it’s final curtain, but look for more great shows coming from ETC for the 2015-2016 season; next up is A Christmas Carol and while we don’t have exact dates yet we’re guessing it will be, ummm, near Christmas.
Tags: Adam Giebner, Allyse Hoge, Bethany Van Eps, Big Bad Wolf, Casey Hennessey, Children Will Listen, Chris Berg, Christopher Olsen, Cinderella, community theatre, Empire Arts Center, Empire Theater, Empire Theatre, Empire Theatre Company, Into the Woods, Jack and the Beanstalk, James Lapine, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Juliet Wolfe, Leo Lapka, Little Red Ridinghood, Mackenzie Teepen, maura Ferguson, Miss Jaye, Prince Charming, Rapunzel, Sondheim, Stephen Sondheim, The Witch, Therese Kulas, World of Champagne