Into the Woods

As you may have discovered, real life is not like a fairy tale. Few things go on “happily ever after,” and there’s a lot of gray in life — not much black-and-white.

In “Into the Woods,” currently being performed at UVSC’s Ragan Theater, even the fairy tales aren’t like this. “Witches can be right, giants can be good,” sings one of the characters. Getting your prince doesn’t guarantee happiness, and having your wish granted isn’t always such a swell thing, either. Heck, even the NARRATOR gets killed in this story.

Leave it to Stephen Sondheim, the master of modern American musical theater, to take familiar fairy tale characters — Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (of beanstalk fame) — weave their stories together, and wind up with an entertaining yet serious look at the choices we must make in everyday life.

This production, directed by Susan J. Whitenight, is well-assembled and flows nicely. She has her actors all over the theater, coming down the aisles and appearing on balconies all over the place. The casting is near-perfect, too, with most performers being able to handle the demanding musical score as well as the deeper-than-you’d-expect acting that is required.

The lead characters are the Baker and his wife, who, as fate would have it, live next door to a witch who has cursed them with infertility, thanks to some wrong-doing committed by the Baker’s long-dead father. She agrees to lift the curse and let them have a child, however, if they will bring her four items. Each of these items, we soon learn, must come from other fairy tale characters (Cinderella’s slipper, Red Riding Hood’s cape, etc.), all of whom live in the same unnamed village.

The first act ends with everything wrapping up quite nicely — happily ever after, it would appear, except that we haven’t LEARNED anything. That’s where the second act comes in. Generally less comical and with far more import, this act shows what happens when the fairy tale ends and reality sets in. Cinderella and Rapunzel’s princes, who of course married them rather hastily, begin to seek after the gals we know as Snow White and Sleeping Beauty (seems all these guys really want is a challenge or a conquest). The Baker and his wife, now with a baby, see that babies aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. And Jack and his mother, rich from the gold they stole from the giant, aren’t all that happy — especially when the dead giant’s wife comes down and wants to avenge her husband’s wrongful death.

Blame gets passed along at a rapid-fire pace in one action-packed scene. It’s Jack’s fault for making this giant angry, but it’s the Baker’s fault for giving him the magic beans in the first place, but it’s the witch’s fault for making the Baker try to buy Jack’s cow from him — and on and on. “How was I to know?” asks one character of the now-dreadful consequences of his youthful actions. “How are we ever to know?”

Indeed, how? Ultimately, the message is that life requires mature decisions, and that there’s not always a narrator to tell us what we should do. The “woods,” spoken of so often in fairy tales, here represent the difficult times in our lives, the crossroads, the situations in which we are called to action. “Into the woods you go again, you have to every now and then” — and hopefully, you come out better and wiser.

Christopher Isaacson is strong as the Baker, with a powerful singing voice and good acting skills. Even better, though, is Courtney L. Young, as his wife. She gives realism, humor and depth, making her character the most fleshed-out and complex in the show. Her wrong decision in the second act, as well as the song she sings and the ensuing events, are all quite powerful.

Liz Kabbush is peppy and giddy as Little Red Riding Hood, balancing out the rather odd and annoying Wolf, played by Joshua Fitzgerald. Brian Hadffeld and Mattney Beck are superb as Rapunzel and Cinderella’s princes, getting big laughs with their songs about the “agony” of love. (It’s good that their characters are largely played for laughs, considering they turn out to be adulterous rascals.)

Michael Jensen makes Jack a happy but dim-witted boy, and he seems to have a lot of talent. It seems that lurking somewhere beneath his vacuous smile is a smart guy, playing a dumb guy.

“Into the Woods” is more mature than a children’s story, but it’s not heavy-handed or ponderous. The twists and turns are ingenious, the singing is solid, and the show is entertaining.

I first saw "Into the Woods" several years earlier at a high school in Southern California. This particular high school was well-known for doing professional-quality plays, and this was no exception. I immediately fell in love with the whole show, but it wasn't until 1997 that I was able to see it again, here at UVSC. Fortunately, this production did the show justice. It really is a brilliant play. See it sometime if you can.

Maybe I should mention that I auditioned for this particular show. I made call-backs, but got no further than that. There were only a few characters I COULD have played, really, given my limited singing abilities, but I wasn't too bitter at not being cast, especially when I saw the good cast that resulted instead.