Pegasus Players

Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm’s collection of fairy tales was a not entirely successful effort to provide authoritative versions of stories that had been passed down through centuries of oral tradition. Such stories, of course, have a habit of changing according to the circumstances in which they’re told; no matter how familiar the major details of tales like “Rapunzel” and “Little Red Riding Hood” are, they will be altered according to who’s telling them, who’s listening to them, and what’s going on in the world around them. For one group of tellers and listeners “Little Red Riding Hood” might reflect the terror of wild animals lurking close by the tribal camp fire; for another group it might express the moral lesson that people should heed the authority of whoever’s in charge and not stray from the proper path.

For Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, writing their musical comedy Into the Woods, the stories of Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Cinderella, and Jack the Giant Killer represented variations on themes of 1980s urban living: the breakdown of the family, loss of faith, random violence, and an epidemic of a disease, AIDS, whose social ravages seemed to confirm the sternest and most restrictive attitudes toward sexual freedom. The authors’ decision to use fairy-tale literature to explore these troubling issues was a brilliant stroke. The natural urge for people perplexed by modern reality is to turn to traditional fantasy; Into the Woods, which investigates the darkly ambiguous implications of the old legends (and the Walt Disney retellings of them with which most of us grew up), plays to the audience’s desire for escape as a way of showing that audience that there is no escape.

To link the fairy tales together songwriter Sondheim and playwright Lapine constructed an original story, “The Baker and His Wife,” about a childless couple who learn that their barrenness is the result of a magic spell. To undo the spell they must acquire a collection of unusual items, a quest that takes them away from their secure but incomplete home and into the woods, where they encounter such figures as Red Riding Hood and her wolf, Jack and his giant, and Rapunzel and Cinderella and their respective charming princes. Presiding over all of this is a not exactly wicked but clearly overwrought witch and a mysterious, almost troll-like man–real and surrogate parent figures whose own failings have had terrible effects on the young people around them. The different narrative strands wander through the witty script, exquisite music, and rhyme-heavy lyrics (whose singsongy style maintains a children’s-story quality while probing adult insecurities) like people lost in a maze, leading the characters to a final showdown with a lady giant who, seeking revenge for her husband’s death at Jack’s hands, has laid waste to the land. How the giant is conquered and how the survivors rearrange their lives to form a distinctly modern alternative family are the subjects of the play’s final minutes.

A hit on Broadway several seasons back, Into the Woods is now being produced concurrently by two local companies. An in-the-round staging by William Pullinsi, featuring a cast of Actors Equity members, premiered in April at Marriott’s Lincolnshire Theatre and runs through September 16 at Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in Summit. Now a non-Equity proscenium staging by Victoria Bussert is on view through September 9 at Pegasus Players theater in Uptown, prior to embarking on a national tour. The two productions illustrate that, like the stories that inspired it, the Sondheim-Lapine musical will change according to the circumstances in which it’s seen. The words and music are the same, but the variation in inflection that emerges in the two different productions is remarkable.

The Pegasus actors are generally younger and less experienced than their Candlelight counterparts. Though the Pegasus performers are blessed with very strong and melodious singing voices, they clearly have trouble keeping up with some of Sondheim’s lickety-split tongue-twister lyrics, which sometimes compromises the integrity of the composer’s very precise rhythms. (The singing might improve over the run, as long as musical director Christopher Moore keeps on top of it.) But their youth gives them an appealing, if sometimes overly winsome, vulnerability that makes this production stand on its own quite nicely for city audiences who prefer a more convenient venue and a lower ticket price than Candlelight’s. When Tina Gluschenko as Cinderella and Scott Calcagno as the Baker, both clearly only in their early 20s, find themselves cast in the roles of surrogate parents to orphaned adolescents Red Riding Hood (Gina Valentine) and Jack (Rob Dorn), for example, there’s an inherent sweet sadness in their unpreparedness for what fate has handed them. Candlelight’s actors are adults wandering through a bizarrely childlike nightmare; at Pegasus, the actors seem closer to the state of childhood the show evokes.

As a director, Bussert exhibits a heart-on-the-sleeve sensibility that’s very different from Pullinsi’s subtlety. This more heavy-handed approach underscores the shift in tone from the goofy fractured-fairy-tales first act to the more serious second act, and it reinforces the musical’s viability as a children’s show (which should pay off on the road). Bussert’s directorial bluntness produces some very strong moments. Among them is the duet between Cinderella’s and Rapunzel’s princes–classic Sondheim males, yearning for romance but unable to commit to a relationship; falling short of the physical gorgeousness the roles call for, Steve Wallem and Russell Alan Rowe play the scene for hammy comedy quite successfully. In the generally overlooked role of Jack’s mother, Sara Minton combines abrasiveness and rough-edged tenderness to make an unusually forceful impact. The brief encounter between Red Riding Hood and the granny-eating wolf (Scott Mikita) is also very strong–stronger than in Pullinsi’s version, which consciously tones down the scene’s sexual implications. (On Broadway the wolf’s costume was outfitted with a farcically large phallus. The costume at Candlelight contains not a hint of such a thing. The Pegasus production uses the costumes from the original national tour, but there is a black patch on the costume’s crotch, indicating that the original adornment was probably removed–whether on the road or for this production, I don’t know.)

In other scenes the blunt approach is less successful. Tina Gluschenko’s frazzled, gawky Cinderella is more high-strung than the role is usually played; it’s an attention-grabbing interpretation that starts out strong but descends into bathos by the time Cinderella sings the comforting “No One Is Alone” to Red Riding Hood. Bringing out a character’s anxiety was effective in the brilliant Anyone Can Whistle Bussert directed at Pegasus a couple of years ago because that early Sondheim effort is so ironic; in this later, more sentimental work it feels overstated and gets in the way of the song’s beauty.

But nothing intrudes on the beauty of Russ Borski’s wondrous set and lighting. Making full use of the sprawling Pegasus stage, Borski provides a trio of brightly colored storybooks that open into cutely inviting pop-up homes for the various family groups, then are wheeled off to leave the characters in a simultaneously threatening and tempting woods lit by a huge yellow moon and a sky that changes from deep, lush blue to apocalyptic red. More than any other element in the show, Borski’s designs capture the dreamlike mystery of this rich and stimulating work of musical theater.

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