Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Into the Woods, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' 1999 holiday show, is just wonderful. John Ezell's cheerfully busy set in vivid earth colors, James Scott's equally vivid costumes and Mary Jo Dondlinger's lighting, especially the rosy dawn that closes the evening, make the stage itself a place of enchantment. The youthful cast, spearheaded by Nancy Johnston as the Baker's Wife, move, speak and sing with a clarity that establishes their characters first boldly but with deepening subtlety as the evening goes on. Mark Lanyon's high, shiny tenor enhances the guileless boyishness of Jack, of "Jack and the Beanstalk," as winningly as Alison Bevan's alternately smoky and brazen mezzo comes to seem the only possible voice with which to sing the Witch. Victoria Bussert's direction keeps her magical stage consistently full of lives lived at full tilt, and Eric van Baars' choreography, though challenging neither to performer nor to audience, sparkles appropriately. Down in the pit, music director Denes Van Parys keeps his Brementown musicians tootling along briskly.
Into the Woods demands exactly the sort of production the Rep has given it. Sondheim has a reputation for making "dark" musical theater, but Into the Woods is, at the most, Dark Lite. In its first act, Sondheim and his collaborator, James Lapine, retell four familiar fairy-tales: Little Red Ridinghood (played by Jenn Thompson); Jack in the Beanstalk (Lanyon); Cinderella (Kate Fry), in the much more hard-nosed Grimm Brothers version than the nicey-nice French adaptation by Charles Perrault; and Rapunzel (Somer Lee Graham). To this they add a tale of their own making concerning a Baker and his wife who cannot have a child until they appease the anger of a particularly difficult witch. Whit Reichert, in the nonsinging role of Royal Steward, overflows with comic petty power, self-interest and venality.
The tale of the Baker couple (played and sung superbly by Johnston and Jason Ma in a distinctly more realistic style than the other characters use) binds all the folk of Into the Woods together as neighbors whose separate adventures intertwine when they all set off into the mystery of the woods where dreams and wishes, both good and bad, are realized. By the end of the act, all (except the witch) are more than satisfied with their lives and are ready to live happily ever after.
Act 2 is where the dark -- which is actually a predictable irony, amusingly presented -- sets in. Cinderella and Rapunzel's princes want new and different women. The Baker's Wife wants to move. Rapunzel is nuts from having been imprisoned for so long in her tower. Jack and Little Red Ridinghood are OK, but Jack's mother is still worrying, especially after the giant wife of the giant Jack slew comes down the beanstalk for vengeance. The witch, whose Act 1 quest was to recover her youth and beauty, is even worse-tempered because, beauty and youth restored, she has lost her magical powers and is now merely, but frighteningly, obnoxious.
Lapine's interesting book and Sondheim's lyrics are full of the best sort of cleverness and never rely on the flatulence of topicality or bawdiness. The cast's uniform elegance of diction and phrasing ensures that the only way the audience misses a line or two is when its own laughter interferes. The clarity of the diction is especially apparent in the singing, and it makes one wonder why trained musical-theater people can make every syllable intelligible but opera singers generally cannot. Sondheim's music is not easy, either. For one thing, unlike opera, it is a vehicle for words rather than the other way around, so shaping a phrase around the words is paramount. Sondheim also plays around with dissonance, and because he does not write for singers with extended ranges, the music stays in areas of limited pitch that make it terribly easy for singers to sing flat -- or appear to do so. The cast of the Rep's Into the Woods, however, seemed to surmount the musical difficulties effortlessly. Past St. Louis performances of Sondheim's music, particularly at the Fox, have left me cold, but Sondheim at the Loretto-Hilton, whether the Rep's or the Webster Conservatory's, has always seemed surprisingly melodious. Probably Sondheim just sounds best -- and needs to be heard -- in an intimate hall.
The Rep's Into the Woods is probably the most excellent holiday gift the community is going to get this year. Its cheerful spookiness brings back the big storybooks of the past as its irony plants us firmly in the present. The mild acid of book and lyrics complements its musical lyricism. Some tickets as Hanukkah gelt or under a Christmas tree are Magi-type gifts that even the most jaded Midwestern Mr. or Ms. Scrooge will receive with gratitude.
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