Aisle Say


Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim Book by James Lapine
Directed by Spiro Veloudos
At the Public Theatre
Herter Park, Boston Through Sept 1st

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

"Into The Woods" is an obvious choice for the Publick Theatre 's outdoor stage. The fairy tale characters that populate James Lapine 's book are familiar and attractive, the impressive Sondheim score has accessible tunes, the show ran long enough in NYC so that most of the potential audience has at least heard of it and will come predisposed to like it, and the woods that form the tales' setting are all around the audience in Herter park. There's no single central character, no real bang-up star part, so Spiro Veloudos ' ensemble-oriented company of singing actors who have already proven that they can handle anything from Tin Pan Alley to Shakespeare ought to find it a cinch.

Unfortunately, "Into The Woods" is not as easy as all that. For one thing, the music presents difficulties. The excellent Jonathan Goldberg leads a reduced orchestra of five players on eight instruments; but mostly Goldberg accompanies on a synthesizer whose muddy sound doesn't carry well outdoors. The wind may whip the notes away at just the moment that an entering singer relies on them for help with a tricky interval. Four fixed floor mikes at the front of the stage mean that it is almost impossible to balance the voices in multi-part ensembles.

The Publick's audience is a cross-section, from kids to grandparents, while the "Into The Woods" book is very self-consciously addressing a sophisticated audience using dramatic material that is generally relegated to the nursery. One of the ways the Broadway production dealt with this was to "camp" the show, loading the staging with witty in-jokes and spectacular effects that can only be approximated by a theatre with the limited resources of the Publick. Designer Robert Russo has stuck with the flat-plane pop-up picture book Landesman design rather than trying to integrate the painted trees of the "Woods" set with the leafy grove that forms the theatre's natural backdrop. The production invites a point by point comparison that cannot work to the Publick's advantage. On the other hand, the set does function well, and Veloudos moves his cast through the many split-second entrances and exits with efficiency and grace.

The Baker ( Robert Saoud ) and his Wife ( Maryann Zschau ), who long for a child and must carry out the commands of the Witch to be granted their desire; and foolish Jack ( Sean Patrick Fagan ), sent by his widowed Mother ( Carol Zins ) to sell his beloved cow Milky White to get enough money to fend off immediate starvation, are the pairs whose stories intersect with the others and shape the action. These four principals have a common problem in the first act, in that the naturalistic acting they do, and do well, is at odds with the production's tableau blocking and burlesque bits of business.

By sheer volume and energy, Susan Dupry as Little Red Riding Hood and Robin V. Allison as The Witch command the stage and insist that the heavy stylization fit them. Bob Jolly 's exaggerations as the Narrator/Mysterious Man are of a slightly different sort, but he too seems comfortable. Ruben Roine mimes a mean Wolf, although the puny sound that makes its way past his Wolf-mask and into the audience just doesn't do his villainy justice in "Hello Little Girl" .

Cinderella's sisters ( Alusun Armstrong, Michele Proud ) aren't ugly on the outside in Lapine's version of the fairy tale. The sisters are prettily coifed, and gowned in satin and lace. They comport themselves like suburban princesses. Cinderella herself ( Molly Beck ) has a sweet, light, focused singing voice, and carries herself with the confused air of an ordinary person who finds herself living inside a cartoon.

The first act of "Into the Woods" is peopled with cartoon figures, one-or- two dimensional and defined by their goals: "I Wish", each sings in the Prologue. Life is a comedy to those who think. Plenty of set-backs built into the plot, as the questers run into obstacles and enemies, but nothing that can't be fixed, by pluck or by magic. "Into the Woods" is where you must go to get what you want, to learn what you need to know, to change and grow, to arrive at the choral harmonies of "Ever After" . But although characters like the two Princes ( Geoffrey Stewart, Ruben Roine ) get wise to themselves, they aren't improved by it. It's as if they are going, as the Americans nation is said to have done, from barbarism to decadence without ever passing through civilization.

In the second act, life is a tragedy to those who feel. The characters become vulnerable to each other. They have hearts that can be broken. Or like Rapunzel ( Ginger Green ), they have spirits so traumatized by their dysfunctional family histories that no amount of good fortune can result in their living happily ever after. People are destroyed by the unintended consequences of actions that, at the time, seemed the best thing to do.

The Giant's Wife is on the rampage, determined to punish whoever was responsible for the theft of her treasures and the death of her husband, the Giant. Her weight makes the earth tremble, her steps crush houses, castles, and lives. The terrified refugees blame each other in "Your Fault" and are tempted to hunt Jack down and turn him over to the Giant's Wife to appease her wrath.

Embodying a Giant who takes a forty foot shoe is simple for Hollywood to do, but in live theatre it is beyond the technical capacity even of Broadway. The menace must be projected by an offstage voice and the actors' imaginations. Actors' imaginations the Publick has in plenty--- these scenes were effective.

The Baker's Wife meets Cinderella's Prince in the woods, and as she succumbs to his momentary embraces Zschau seems at last to be centered in the character and at ease in the music. Her smallest gesture can be trusted to convey all the complex emotions of "Moments In the Woods" . The naturalistic acting and the soft-voiced singing come into their own now for Robert Saoud, too, drawing the audience to look and listen intently. The Baker's rejection of the baby he once wanted more than anything is believable, terrible, forgivable; as it begins to dawn on us that once upon a time is a time when families fall apart, spouses are betrayed and deserted, children abused, houses destroyed --- where one carefree coupling can spell doom to a whole cohort years after the act. Fairy tales are primitive and bloody under their covers of nursery pastel. They tiptoe on the dreaming edge between a fantastic hope and a realistic despair. The Lapine/Sondheim strategy is to undercut the hope by underlining the fantasy, then make the despair bearable by the beauty of its musical expression.

When Beck's Cinderella, fled from the castle and back in her ragged clothes, holds in her arms a Red Riding Hood who has lost everyone she loves, and warns her that she cannot trust her own perceptions, singing:
"Giants can be right. Witches can be good."
and yet the little girl must have faith that
"No One Is Alone" , the greeting card sentiment is earned and touching and true.