Stephen Sondheim’s musicals are synonymous with American theater, and at their best, they turn the cultural icons we know and love on their heads. Such is the case with “Into the Woods,” which opened Friday at Indiana University. What’s more beloved than classical fairy tale characters like Snow White, Rapunzel, Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood? Sondheim and James Lapine take these characters and put them all together in a forest teeming with menace.
“Ah,” but I hear you say, “‘Shrek’ did that, and it was adorable.” This is true, but while the ogre’s tale gave us a whimsical side, “Into the Woods” shows us that the real world can intrude on the fairy tale, so you must be very careful what you wish for.
As the story begins, the fairy tale characters all live in a far-off kingdom, along with a childless baker and his wife. The couple learn of a curse placed on their house by a neighboring witch and what they must do to lift the spell. The stories begin to intertwine, told in some of Sondheim’s best songs.
The IU production brought it with full force. It was one of those shows where the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. Individual performers had their moments, but when the ensemble came together for the group numbers, they were right on target, between Terry LaBolt’s musical direction and Kenneth Roberson’s stage direction — aided by Liza Gennaro’s choreography.
Standouts in the cast include Kaitlyn Smith as Little Red Riding Hood, Brian Bandura as the wolf, and Christian Fary and Elaine Cotter as the baker and his wife. Kelsey Shaw displayed some range as the witch, but I felt like she played too many scenes directly to the audience, rather than acting with the other characters in the scene with her.
I had some minor quibbles with the sound, as the orchestra sometimes overwhelmed the singers, but I also have to applaud the company’s innovation, like their idea of using actors to portray Cinderella’s bird friends and Jack’s cow. Between the puppetry and actor Kevin Renn’s movements, Milky White the cow was very emotive.
Christopher Rhoton’s scene design did a great job balancing the claustrophobic nature of the indoor scenes with a very striking presentation of the vastness and ancientness of the titular woods in autumn. A sunken staircase felt like it had been there for decades, and the trees periodically wept red and yellow leaves to the stage. These are no ordinary woods, and the design lent an “otherness” to them that was just right for the story.
True to form, the first act — clocking in at a hefty 85 minutes — introduced our characters, put them in precarious situations, and then gave them a happy outcome. You’re just about ready to believe that it’s done in one, until our narrator utters those infamous words, “To be continued.” What follows in the second act is as dark as midnight, with the naive characters facing the consequences of their fondest wishes. If you don’t have a tear in your eye by the time the baker and the mysterious man sing “No More,” you may have left your heart in the parking lot.
Of course, it’s not all gloom and doom. There are plenty of light-hearted moments. When the two princes duet on “Agony” — one of musical theater’s rare songs for two men — it’s a thing of comical beauty, and Robert Toms and Joey Birchler sell it perfectly.
At the final curtain, the full house was on its feet, roaring and cheering their approval for this energetic, heartfelt offering of one of Sondheim’s best-loved works. Only seen the movie? Baby, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
If you go
WHO: IU Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance.
WHAT: “Into the Woods,” by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine.
WHERE: Ruth N. Halls Theater, 275 N. Jordan Ave., Bloomington.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. April 21-25; 2 p.m. April 25.
TICKETS: $15-$25. Call 812-855-1103 or visit theatre.indiana.edu.