“Art Isn’t Easy” is a famous line and a title of a song from one of the American musical’s greatest composers, Stephen Sondheim. There is irony in that lyric, as performing a Sondheim show isn’t easy. This was what I was thinking as I was up on my feet with other audience members for a standing ovation at last weekend’s performance of “Into the Woods,” an iconic Sondheim show at Music Mountain Theatre in Lambertville.
The Sondheim oeuvre extends over decades and various musical theater forms. As the lyricist of “Gypsy” and “West Side Story,” he provided the words to songs that were more traditional in nature and became part of the Great American Songbook. But Sondheim, following in the tradition of his mentor Oscar Hammerstein, struck out to “do it all” and then some. Hammerstein, during his career, wrote the book and lyrics. Sondheim, additionally, wrote the music. In doing all three, he developed a singular style where the music advanced the plot in an intricate rhyme that was ingenious, witty and complex.
If Hammerstein was credited for taking Richard Rodger’s music and making it a part of the dramatic through line like never before, Sondheim’s rapid lyrics, coming out often in a contrapuntal overlap of two characters takes songs to a whole new level in pushing the story forward.
Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” is not that simplistic mode of speak/stop/sing our song/speak again, with the song expressing an emotion but not a furtherance of plot. That normal way of making a musical is like a quilt of different patches of song and then story. But “Into the Woods” is a tapestry where music weaves the story in and out, from one character to another. In opera, there is recitatif, which are dramatic devices of sung dialogue that connect the major songs. Sondheim’s genius is that he has the intellectual capability to construct unlikely rhymes for dramatic situations that become captivating musical conversations. His musical conversations, unlike recitatif, are intricately constructed melodies.
Jordan Brennan has casted the ensemble brilliantly. The Music Mountain Theatre Resident Company is becoming so comfortable with itself in the best way that the actors are taking chances, making fun and bold choices and enjoying themselves to the point that the joy pours rapturously off of the stage and into the audience. All in the telling of the familiar and not-so familiar telling of Grimm Fairy Tales and the children’s stories of Charles Perrault.
The first act combines several of the old yarns that in their original versions were quite grizzly and dark — not the Disney version. These stories include “Cinderella,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Rapunzel.” “The Baker and His Wife,” a new story created by Sondheim collaborator and librettist James Lapine, is the central story which connects all the others.
A wicked witch has placed a curse of infertility on the baker and his wife. For them to remove the curse, they must accomplish a task. They must obtain a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold. And, for this reason, they go into the woods and meet, respectively, Jack, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Cinderella, who by the way has golden slippers and not glass. Glass was so last year.
The theme of the show is stated by the very first sung words of the show by Cinderella: “I Wish.” The show, in the first act, has the divergent characters expressing their wishes and attaining them. The second act shows that life has consequences after wishes are fulfilled. It is a brilliant conceit. It is mesmerizing storytelling, done with an expertise and joy that fully deserved the ovation at the end of the show.
Being an ensemble show, the show seems more balanced without a celebrity star stealing focus with her/his celebrity, which happened with the Broadway show. The script gives you too much to think about and never needed the distraction of seeing Bernadette Peters as the Witch or Dick Cavett as the Narrator. Director Brennan and cast focused on telling the story. Mission accomplished and they delight.
The Narrator is usually played by an older man. Older men are story tellers, by nature. But Brennan cast Skyler Carter, who is currently in seventh grade at New Hope-Solebury and is a marvelous actor, as evidenced by an earlier performance last season when he starred as Ralphie in “A Christmas Story.” This casting is so smart, as stories are to inspire the future and are told by older siblings, as often as not, to younger family members. If, in the end, we are to believe that, despite the disappointments wishes fulfilled may bring, there is still hope, a young narrator inspires that message. And hope is what you are left with at the end of the show when the beautiful song “No One is Alone” is sung. A youthful narrator adds to that vision of a brighter tomorrow for the collective family that is left on stage and represents us.
Louis Palena and Lauren Bader as the Baker and his Wife are the linchpins of the play insofar as they represent the working man and woman who are us. Palena sings “No More” at the end of act two, after so many of the characters have had their fates turned upside down. For all of us who have had life upended, he speaks or rather sings the truth. Intensely and with fervent conviction, along with “No One is Alone,” it galvanizes our spirits and stirs the soul. He passionately tells us that after down, there is up.
Elizabeth Kane terrifies as the Witch and has some of the fastest patter you have ever heard in a song as she has to go into some lengthy, totally sung exposition that is included in the amazing opening number that is entitled “Prologue Into the Woods.” My warlock hat is off to her. She is transformed into a stylish, sexy witch by Act Two, where she has that all too earthly sense of connivance. She metamorphosizes into something similar to a post-magical Miranda Priestly from “A Devil Wears Prada.” Kane does cast a spell.
Angelica Staikos sings pitch perfect and, most importantly, acts with a sincerity, as Cinderella. What is necessary in doing that character is for the audience to empathize with her as the downtrodden scullery maid turned princess. The empathy pays off for the audience due to her thoughtful performance. By Act Two, the young girl becomes a woman of conviction, which of course is not the ending of the happily-ever-after fairy tale we are accustomed to. Hers is one of the greatest transformations of the many transformations that occur to our “fairy tale” families.
Jack from “Jack in the Beanstalk” is often played as a total dullard. And that is what the script calls for. Jack is not the brightest bulb in the pack. But Patrick Lavery, who plays him, is one of the brightest lights onstage and it is impossible for him not to charm. It is no wonder why his mother, the hilariously talented Toni Thompson, dotes on him.
Lauren Donahoe is a pert and cute Miss Riding Hood who learns the ways of the world from the Big Bad Wolf, Roger Madding. Madding proves to be quite a song and dance man. Donahoe has some of the funniest moments in the show.
Kasey Ivan Portenier and Erik Snyder ooze a sexy nobility as the Princes for Cinderella and Rapunzel. The rest of the ensemble is top notch, as well, with Joan Hoffman as Cinderella’s stepmother, Morgan Tarrant as Florinda (the stepdaughter), Carly Schiff as Lucinda (the other stepdaughter), Mark Flanango as Cinderella’s father, Chelsea Connelly as Cinderella’s mother, David Whiteman as The Mysterious Man, Lucinda Fisher as Rapunzel, Sharon Rudda as the Giant, and Cathy Alaimo as Granny.
Kudos to set design by McAffee Madding and Karl Weigand, lighting design by Chris Cichon, sound design by Seth Epstein, and musical direction by Sue Den Outer. The difficulty of the score can be intimidating, especially for a troupe which never rests, but Den Outer and cast give this show the vocals that it demands and then some. Close to near perfection, it was no wonder the audience sprung to its feet at the end as if we all were on coiled springs.
This show is a story of fractured fairy tales and fractured dreams, but the baker and those who are left after many travails are still halfway through the woods. We who survive in this world, after many falls, are given hope from bakers and “Jacks” of all trades and ex-little girls who become women, as we all travel through this vast forest reaching for the light.
The show continues through March 15, and tickets are available online.