Marriott’s Lincolnshire Theatre

A man sits dozing in his library. His mind is troubled–by too much work, too much pressure from city living, too many friends dying of AIDS, stress, and age. Things sure were easier when he was a child, when his mother read to him from Mother Goose and the Brothers Grimm. So before he drops off to sleep, he picks up one of his old fairy-tale books. He hasn’t looked at them in years; mostly he keeps them around for the feeling of security they give him, a reminder of his childhood, a sentimental link to his dead mother.

As he dreams, the heroes and heroines of the stories come to jumbled, incoherent life. Their famous, ridiculous adventures send them colliding into each other: Jack the Giant Killer pursues Little Red Riding Hood; the prince who’s chasing Cinderella bumps into the prince who’s looking for Rapunzel. Over these make-believe characters and their doings hang the dreamer’s troubles–the sense of his own mortality and the dread that has turned his social circle into a beleaguered community of survivors.

I don’t know Stephen Sondheim personally, so I don’t know if this scenario accurately describes the mindset behind Into the Woods, the fairy-tale musical he wrote with playwright James Lapine. I do know that the brilliant production directed by William Pullinsi at Marriott’s Lincolnshire Theatre (scheduled for transfer to Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in late June) reveals the work as a captivating exercise in dream theater, as well as a virtuosic showcase for Sondheim’s songwriting genius and the extremely gifted performers Pullinsi has assembled. Far superior to the Broadway production–less strident and stagy, more direct and deeply felt, more comprehensible, and more out-and-out fun–this Into the Woods synthesizes content and style in a way that most shows aim for but very few ever achieve.

Into the Woods starts out simple, like a children’s show. A narrator introduces us, with just the faintest hint of condescension, to the well-known characters in this compilation of family classics. Here is Little Red Ridinghood, bright, bratty, and independent, off to see her granny. Here’s good-hearted, dim-witted Jack, who must sell his beloved cow to buy food for himself and his mother and ends up settling for a handful of beans. Here’s ever-hopeful, eternally dumped-on Cinderella, worked like a slave by her cruel stepmother and stepsisters while her father ignores the situation. Here’s Rapunzel, the long-haired beauty imprisoned in a tower until a brave prince saves her.

Here, too, are the baker and his wife, new characters created by Lapine and Sondheim to tie the stories together. The baker and his wife are childless and desperately unhappy about it; the wicked witch, who has cast a spell rendering the baker infertile, offers to undo the spell if he will bring her a red cape, a white cow, a golden slipper, and corn-yellow hair. The baker’s quest for these objects leads him into the woods, where he meets the other figures and discovers his own manhood.

It’s the baker who gives Jack a handful of beans in exchange for a cow. When the beans spawn a stalk that reaches into the clouds, Jack climbs up it and eventually kills the giant. But the giant’s mourning wife, demanding revenge, lays waste to the countryside and spreads random death while looking for her husband’s killer. By the end of the show, about half the characters are dead–some killed by the giantess, others by their fellow humans. The rest must learn to get along in a world where getting your wish means you have to live with it.

Throughout the piece, Sondheim and Lapine play with their source material while plumbing it for deeper implications. Much of the humor is fairly obvious–all the better to transport us to a childlike state of mind. Red Ridinghood is a brat, Rapunzel is a dingbat, the princes are vain and fatuous (“I was raised to be charming, not sincere,” sighs one); the witch starts out as a hag who makes Margaret Hamilton look like a beauty queen, then turns into a Joan Collins-style vamp.

But underneath–propelled by the efforts of the sweet little baker to end his infertility and then cope with parenthood–the interlocking stories strike a series of variations on the themes that dominate all of Sondheim’s mature work: love and commitment, coping with arbitrary disaster and unfair loss, truth versus illusion. In earlier works such as Company, Follies, and A Little Night Music, these themes were explored in the context of romantic relationships and in a vein of lightly venomous sophistication that by Sweeney Todd had become bitterly bloodthirsty. But in his later years, Sondheim has turned his attention to more primal material; Sunday in the Park With George and Into the Woods are obsessed with parent-child relationships, and Into the Woods explores the related themes of fertility and barrenness. Everywhere is loss. Jack’s cow can’t give milk, so his mother makes him sell it; later, his adventure leads to his mother’s death. Red Ridinghood strays from the path of virtue, and her grandmother gets eaten up. The witch locks Rapunzel in a tower, trying to protect her from the evil world outside; Rapunzel repays her with hatred and heartbreak. The baker, whose childlessness is punishment for his own parents’ greed, stops relying on his wife to be his mother as well, and is eventually reunited with his long-absent father. Cinderella, whose father’s inattention makes her stepmother’s cruelty possible, leaves home for a happy-ever-after marriage to her surrogate-daddy prince, but yearns for the give and take of a real relationship.

Fairy tales were created by adults to entertain and soothe children–and children, the show warns us, will listen; the characters in this show speak and sing in the sing-songy, broadly platitudinous, epigrammatic language traditionally associated with these stories. Sondheim’s gift for clever rhyme is stretched to the limit in the show’s virtually nonstop score, and the challenge his tongue-twisting lyrics provide to the singers is part of the show’s appeal. The Marriott’s cast–an extraordinary ensemble headed by Hollis Resnik as the witch, Ross Lehman as the baker, Shannon Cochran as his wife, William Brown as the narrator, John Reuss and David Lewman as the princes, Sam Samuelson as Jack, Jennifer Nees as Cinderella, Linda Stephens as her stepmother, and Melissa Dye as Little Red Ridinghood–not only meet the technical demands of the songs, they personalize what the songs are saying, so the lyrics’ deliberate preachiness becomes a touchingly imperfect tool by which these characters try to cope with the mysterious world around them.

Supporting these first-rate singing actors are John Paoletti’s enchanting fairy-tale set, Nancy Missimi’s splendid costumes, Diane Ferry Williams’s remarkably varied lighting, and a lustrous orchestra led by Albert Potts III in David Siegel’s arrangements. Rudy Hogenmiller and James Harms’s musical staging makes the best use I’ve ever seen of Marriott’s sprawling in-the-round space (except for a rather tacky finale that on opening night clusters the singers together in carousel formation rather than spreading them about the large stage). But when a show is this good in every area, the main credit should go to the director. Pullinsi’s understanding of the poetry in Sondheim’s work–a poetry too often ignored by directors who emphasize the composer’s brittle wit instead of the complex emotions that wit paradoxically reveals–makes Into the Woods as useful as it is enchanting. Deeply personal for its composer, it speaks to deeply personal concerns in us. As fairy tales do for children, it allows us to confront, consider, and conquer the terrors and trials of life and death.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tom Maday.