What Happens When Fairy Tales Don’t End “Happily Ever After”
Reviewed by Tom Jones, May 21, 2016
(Note: “Into the Woods” and I are like old friends – getting together after nearly 30 years of friendship, but not seeing each other all that often in the interim. I first found “Woods” on New York’s Broadway in 1987 when it was in previews just prior to its opening. Saw it again a few weeks later when it had become a full-fledged hit. We have visited again a few times over the years – listening to the CD, seeing the taped DVD of the Broadway show. Sometimes it was as delightful and friendly as ever, sometimes –as is the case with the movie version – it had become kind of dreary. So I was a little apprehensive before catching up with my musical friend at the Candlelight this week. I should not have worried, it was as fun — and as serious — as I remember from the first time we met.)
The first number sets the stage – as we are introduced to such familiar faces as Jack and his mother from “Beanstalk” fame, Cinderella cleaning the house for her dreadful stepmother and more-miserable stepsisters, Rapunzel locked high in her tower, alone except when she lets down her long hair for the witch-mother to climb up for a visit. The spitfire Little Red Riding Hood, stuffing herself with goodies enroute to visit the sick grandmother, and stopped by the lecherous wolf. And there are a couple of new ones – a kindly baker and his wife, longing to have a child. Oh yes, and the witch. She has put lots of curses on this little kingdom, and appears to delight in being so evil. But behind that witch nose, witch chin and witch hat there is a truly beautiful person – this time it is Debby Boone! She sings well as a witch, and is completely beautiful when transfigured into her true self – the charmer who brought us “You Light Up My Life” a few decades ago — even before “Into the Woods” became famous.
The first act is a joy – becoming acquainted with the ditsy characters, and some with more substance. Sarah Grover is terrific as the spunky Little Red Riding Hood, prancing off to Grandmother’s house only to be eaten by the wolf. Markus Warren is very clever as the wolf, and also as Cinderella’s Prince. Kalond Irlanda is a real find as Jack, the somewhat slow young man who trades his white cow for a handful of “magic” beans. Rachel Turner is winning as Cinderella whose shoe gets caught in the tar on the steps of the palace, and who brings clarity to Sondheim’s amazingly difficult lyrics. Matt LaFontaine and Tracy Warren portray the Baker and his Wife. They are convincing, and have the audience entranced when they realize “It Takes Two” to accomplish most everything.
Sarah DeYong is physically-trapped in the door-less tower as Rapunzel, so longing to have company that she is willing to “let her hair down.” James Francis is her prince. Francis and Warren are a crazy pair as the princes who think they are more charming than reality permits. They prance around the stage with rare élan. Alisha Winter-Hayes is the haughty stepmother, with Allison Hatch and Katie Burke as her dreadful daughters looking for mates. Melissa Swift-Sawyer is a delight as Jack’s mother. Maggie Tisdale changes costumes all evening, appearing as Cinderella’s Mom, Granny, and the Giant’s wife. Eric Heine is in stately form as The Royal Steward. We see Taylor Lang and Lindsay Krausa only briefly, as they turn up as Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, having married the two princes when life for them hasn’t turned out so well. And Debby Boone lights up the stage whenever her costumes allow – when not hidden beneath the prosthetic chin and nose, and forever-long fingernails.
Keeping the audience informed of the goings-on is David Wygant who also changes costumes frequently. He appears as the Narrator, and also as the “Mysterious Man” who turns up to bewilder everyone in the woods. His interpretation is greatly appreciated, as the information provided in sung lyrics can sometimes be missed.
The first act revolves around the baker and his wife trying to locate items required by the witch to remove a curse she has put on them, not permitting them to have a child. The curse is reversed. Cinderella has married her Prince Charming. Rapunzel has escaped from her tower. Little Red Riding Hood’s wolf has been killed. Jack and his mother are rich. It appears that everyone’s lives will be “happy ever after.”
Then reality sets in. It is almost as if we receive two musicals for the price of one. The second act has glorious music, but serious implications as the characters face challenges they were not expecting. The beans that Jack planted have resulted in his ability to climb to a higher kingdom, only to end up killing a menacing giant. The giant’s wife then takes her anger out on everyone in the woods. Cinderella’s prince turns out to be a louse, but notes that he was “raised to be ‘charming’ not sincere.” Rapunzel’s life is in shambles, Little Red Riding Hood is saved (along with her grandmother) from the belly of the wolf, only to realized that there is more to life than romping through the woods.
The giant’s wife puts terror into everyone’s existence, leaving only a handful of the original characters to bond to face life together. Through this mayhem, however, Sondheim has included some of his more wonderful music: “Stay with Me,” “No More,” and “No One is Alone.” Sondheim was a family friend of Oscar Hammerstein II, who was somewhat of a mentor. Sondheim’s “No One is Alone” has shades of Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
Putting together this ambitious production is credited to Don Berlin who has brilliantly staged and directed the show. Choreography is by Bob Hoppe. Scenic designer is Michael R. Duran, with Dave MacEachen as technical director. Excellent lighting was designed by Shannon Johnson, with sound by Mark Derryberry. Phil Forman serves as music director and conductor. The entire production is a wonder. The scenic design is probably the most comprehensive in the history of Candlelight. There are terrific props – large and small. Such as a horse, a high tower, and a white cow that lives and dies. There is one musical highlight after the next, with possibly the most stirring piece “No More,” sung by Matt LaFontaine as the baker and David L. Wygant as the narrator and “Mysterious Man.” When the two daffy princes get together to compare notes, they delightfully sing of their “Agony” in falling in love with such unusual women, only to reprise the song in the second act when they have found married life to be quite dreadful.
Stephen Sondheim wrote lyrics for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” then wrote lyrics and music for a host of award winning shows including “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Company,” “Follies, “A Little Night Music,” “Sweeney Todd,” and “Sunday in the Park with George.” His musical talents are never-ending, and his lyrics are so intricate that they continue to be a challenge for most musicians.
I have never met Stephen Sondheim. But what he composed and wrote for “Into The Woods” has resulted in one of my favorite shows – one of my best “friends.” Meeting up with my “friend” after several years of no contact, was delightful. There was instant rapport and appreciation for a friendship that endures – just like the show itself teaches.
It was great fun to see the talented Debby Boone in person on stage. She plays the role of the Witch through June 5, with Beth Beyer taking the role from June 9 to July 10. Read my interview with Debby Boone here.
“Into the Woods”
Where: Candlelight Dinner Playhouse
4747 Marketplace Drive, Johnstown
To: July 10, 2016
For Tickets: Box Office: 970/744-3747