For the theater-lover, perhaps the only act as rewarding as discovering some brilliant but unknown play or playwright for the first time is seeing an older, even much-loved show presented in a unique way that gifts audiences with a new vision of that work. While the contemporary-classic musical Into the Woods, by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapin, certainly doesn’t need any figurative artificial respiration to breathe new life into it – it’s old life is still kicking it, thank you very much – the latest Theatre Under the Stars holiday production of Woods delivers new insights and meaning into the show with one simple, beautiful image and narrative device, the picture frame.
Into the Woods, the story of fairytale characters meeting and tangling their plots together, is so dense with psychological and thematic meaning audiences might find themselves lost amid the metaphorical trees as quickly as the characters. Of course, we’re easily tempted to stray from the forest path by the dark-woodsy beauty of Sondheim’s music and lyrics, but in this new TUTS production, director Robert Longbottom gives us some added help in navigating these woods by literally framing them with giant, plain and ornate picture frames as well as a theatrical framing device at the beginning and end of the show.
Longbottom’s imagining begins with actors dressed in black and white contemporary clothing on a bare stage with a rack of colorful costumes behind them. The actors find their outfits and exit to the wings as the curtain lowers again. What audiences might not immediately notice is that this narrative framing device is also physically framed by a large decorative frame around the stage’s proscenium arch.
The curtain rises again and we find more elaborate frames, some resembling vines or perhaps even beanstalks climbing high into the air as well as three smaller frames enclosing the stories of Cinderella (Britney Coleman), the Baker (Jim Stanek) and his wife (Stephanie Gibson), and Jack (Tyler Jones) and his mother (Lauren "Coco" Cohn). Characters soon slip out of and into each other’s frames as they journey individually into the woods to then twine and knot their stories together.
A Journey Through the Forest
With Cinderella, Rapunzel, multiple princes, Red Ridding Hood, a wolf, a witch, giants, giant killers and even a narrator running around those woods, Freudian and Jungian devotees get their workout of exercises in psychological analysis as every other characters explores some issue with their neglectful father/dead or smothering mother and all the characters are archetypes, setting off on their hero’s journey leading them to their own happy ending.
But that’s just the first act. One of the main messages of Into the Woods has always been there’s no real happy endings. If life continues on, it gives or perhaps curses us with multiple acts, and that’s what living and growing means.
The cast all shine in those archetypal maiden, mother, prince, cad, father, son and witch roles, giving their fairytale characters real human dimensions. I mean it as a compliment to Longbottom’s direction to note that no one actor in this ensemble really blazes brighter than the others, though Broadway veteran, Emily Skinner as the Witch, certain weaves some spooky and powerful musical magic, especially during the second act numbers “Last Midnight” and the “Finale: Children Will Listen.”
The Color of Nightly Adventures
The design team, especially Kevin Depinet, scenic designer; Ken Billington, lighting designer, and costume designer Ann Hould-Ward, who created the costumes for the original Broadway production, are the other stars of TUTS’s visually stunning production.
The designers’ creations are so lush with color and depth, it takes some time to realize that the set is actually rather spare. Four trees moved around the stage by Lederhosen-clad woodsmen represent the mysterious and dense forest. The night brings a large moon that turn into a giant clock, and a gilded stairway from an unseen palace, and Rapunzel’s prison tower are about the only large-scale set structures. Yet, audiences will likely never notice the sparseness of the stage with everything bathed in the haunting deep blue and purple light of night, a time when anything can happen and change. And those layered frames continue to hold the stories together on the stage.
The Finale New Vision
And yet, stories will not be confined to books and theaters. They reflect our inner wants, wishes, fears and challenges. As children journeying into adulthood we begin to understand our lives through them. We travel into the woods to grow up but continue to tell ourselves stories about our quests throughout our lives. That message lies at the core of Into the Woods and Longbottom’s last piece of the frame at the finale reflects that idea. I won’t spoil this production’s vision of the ending, happy or otherwise, except to say it involves a mass costume change reflecting the beginning of the show as well as the cast suddenly expanding twofold for the final number.
I’m not sure if there’s a single word in the English language for an emotion that causes the the eyes to tear up even as you smile. Whatever the name, it might be labeled hokey but it’s still a real and genuine feeling that this version of “Finale: Children Will Listen” and its expanded cast of singers evoked in me, at least.
Wishes are dangerous but so is growing up and living each day and night. Young or old, we all need a good story to hum along the way as we travel deep into the woods.
Into the Woods run through December 18 at the Hobby Center.