Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Into the Woods, Great Lakes Theater Festival

The wolf (Derrick Cobey) makes his move on Little Red Riding Hood (Erin Childs)

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”
-- Albert Einstein

It wouldn’t seem to make sense, on the face of it, that reading and knowing stories of pure fantasy, populated with one-dimensional characters, could lead to increased brain power. But these tales have resonated over centuries, indicating that something is going on that we really don’t fully understand or appreciate.

This is the world that is expanded and explored in the endlessly fascinating musical Into the Woods, now being given an often magical production by the Great Lakes Theater Festival. In this play, Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (book) mash up different fairy tales—Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk—adding a couple new characters to boot.

But their real mission is to turn fairy tales inside out, challenging the audience to see those well-worn stories from a fresh perspective. For instance, the giant’s wife comes down to Earth, mourning her dead hubby who crashed after Jack chopped down the beanstalk, but she’s understandably pissed and looking for revenge. And the handsome prince skips out on his, um, fairy tale marriage with Cinderella and has a fling with a baker’s wife (as he helpfully explains, “I was raised to be charming, not sincere.”)

There’s also a witch who is transformed into a beauty (but she loses her magical powers in the process) and a Little Red (Erin Childs) who is as bloodthirsty for wolf carcasses as Sarah Palin, but not nearly as dim. Replete with the requisite number of devourings, spells, tragic accidents and magic beans, the intersecting stories are tied together by a narrator (a smoothly avuncular Marc Moritz) and a volley of songs that benefit from the witty Sondheim touch. When the wolf is chatting up Lil’ Red, he croons deliciously to himself, “There’s no way to describe how you feel/When you’re talking to your meal.”

The intimate new GLTF digs help make Into the Woods a special experience, as the audience is cozied up to the thrust stage like kids listening to an enthralling storyteller. The set designed by Jeff Herrmann is appropriately make-believe, with gnarly trees that rotate to reveal secondary playing areas. And the cast under the finely-tuned direction of Victoria Bussert largely succeeds in finding fresh ways to make these characters burst vividly to life.

As the wicked witch, Jessica L. Cope has a powerful voice that is put to superb use in the “Witch’s Lament” in which she reflects on her (stolen) daughter Rapunzel’s wayward ways: “Children can only grow/From something you love/To something you lose.” Tom Ford is an endearing presence as the baker, who is on a scavenger hunt in the woods so that the childless spell he and his wife are under can be lifted.

Derek Cobey is excellent both as Cinderella’s vain Prince and as the wolf—in the latter role his hairstyle and demeanor recall a young Rod Stewart on the prowl. And he has a delectable, preening duet with Phil Carroll, as Rapunzel’s Prince, when they sing of their “Agony” in connecting with the objects of their affection. Plus, Emily Krieger sings like a lark as Cinderella and manages some dandy pratfalls.

Although she works hard, Maryann Nagel never quite discovers a comedic hook as Jack’s mother, her rants about his stupidity (“You sold a cow for some beans?!”) never coalescing into a clear portrait. And as the baker’s wife, Jodi Dominick seems a bit under-whelmed when she is swept off her feet by Cindy’s Prince.

Sure, this script is a bit overwritten, and there are too many instances of overt didacticism “(Now I’ve learned something I’ve never known before!”). But it’s all worth it for the many moments when the music and the inspired idea of Into the Woods merge, reviving the awe and wonder we first felt when we heard these weird and wonderful stories. And adding a whole new set of moral issues to ponder.

Into the Woods
Through November 8 at the
Great Lakes Theater Festival,
Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th Street,
Cleveland, 216-241-6000

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