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Into the Woods melds fairy tales with a mix of success and failure

Into The Woods
Musical Theater Guild.
By Steven Sondheim and James Lapine.
Kresge Little Theatre.
April 10-12, 8 p.m.

By Joseph E. Bondaryk

The plot of Into The Woods is novel indeed. Steven Sondheim and James Lapine have intertwined the plots of some favorite fairy tales in creating a single even bigger one. The first act opens with the stories of Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, and the Baker and his wife. These latter two are the folks from whom Red Riding Hood gets her goodies, and they are the focus of the story. The wife must enter the woods to assemble the ingredients for a potion required by their neighbor, the Witch, to remove a curse preventing them from having a child. In their search, the Baker and his wife meet up with Jack, Red Riding Hood, and the Wolf, as well as Cinderella, Rapunzel, and their respective Princes. These characters are all busy with their own fairy tales, but each possesses one ingredient for the potion. By the end of Act One, the curse is lifted, Jack kills the giant and is rich from stolen gold, the Wolf is killed, each damsel gets her respective Prince, and the Witch is transformed by her potion into a beauty. All should live happily ever after, right? Well, almost.

Act Two finds our mostly happy cohorts forced into the Wood again to kill the giant's wife, who has come down to earth on an errant beanstalk to get revenge for her husband's untimely demise. A good deal of bickering and finger-pointing ensues. Unfortunately, some of the characters get stepped on in the process, but the group finally bands together to dispose of the giant's wife, allowing the remaining characters to pick up the pieces of their lives. Like all fairy tales, there are some overt messages in all this that we are invited to take home with us.

The premise is wonderful. The connections made among the stories are clever and funny. The music won't leave you humming, as it tends to be more thematic than is currently trendy in theater music, but the lyrics are an interesting blend of tenderness and comedy. The entire story line plays on the audience's childhood sense of who these characters should be, pitting it in opposition with who they actually are -- a bunch of real people stuck in some rather odd circumstances. The characters become endearing through their more human qualities. Horny Princes, a gluttonous Red Riding Hood, a malcontented Cinderella, and others make for great fun.

There were pluses and minuses to staging such a large show in Kresge's Little Theatre. The small space seemed rather cluttered most of the time, and during numbers featuring the full company there was barely enough room for everyone on stage. On the good side, the theatre's acoustics made some of the quiet moments of the musical score quite personal and rewarding, a quality usually lost in the caverns of Kresge's Main Theatre or the Sala de Puerto Rico.

The biggest problem for MTG's production seemed to be an abundance of bad direction. This is a lumpy play to start with, and the scenes seemed almost disjointed at times. The actors sometimes meandered pointlessly around the stage while performing their scenes. Also, the set was ill-conceived. A large tree at center stage blocked views, a poorly-lit screen made the wolf's death painful to watch, and a 6-foot book of fairy tales had no purpose on the stage at all. Some attempt was made to use the aisles and pit area of the theater to extend the small stage, but this effort was inconsistent enough to seem an afterthought. Also very distracting and avoidable were moments in full light when members of the cast were singing and stage hands were moving set pieces around directly behind them. To the directors' credit, I must say that there were many extremely funny sight gags, none of which I will spoil for you. On the whole, the show had great frosting on a cake that was only fair.

At the poorer end of the performances, the Narrator (Andy Kraft '95) was more of a bad Rod Serling impression than anything else, and Kraft's singing nearly ruined a few touching duets. Another major problem was the flat performance by the Witch (Jeannette Ryan '92). She was neither a scary enough crone to motivate the action of the first act, nor a convincing siren in the second. Also, her uneven singing downplayed all the key songs meant to bring out the play's main themes.

There are some absolutely wonderful moments in the musical, however, which when taken together just about add up to the price of admission. Go to hear every note the Baker's Wife (Emily Prenner '93) sings, especially her introspective interpretation of "Moments in the Wood." Go to feel the pain in the Baker's (Rob Dyckman '94) absolutely disheartened rendition of "No More." Also look for a magical spark between these two in all the scenes they act in together. Be ready to be charmed and delighted by the exuberance of Cinderella's Prince (Mike Pieck '92) as he bounds about the kingdom. Laugh loudly at the creative "Agony" duets between him and Rapunzel's Prince (Courtney Furno) without missing their abundant "units."And take a long look at Cinderella (Heather Hays '93). Picture perfect in her beautiful white gown, she too had some very touching moments acting with her Prince.

The supporting cast had some fine moments as well. Jack's Mother (Mary Finn '81) was simply a joy to hear sing and act. The four members of Cinderella's family caused smiles whenever they came on stage. The orchestra was MTG's most solid in recent memory. And to the credit of the entire cast, whenever the full company of 17 were on stage together, it was by far some of the most full and harmonious sound I've ever heard in the Little Theatre.

Like the characters in the story, MTG's production spends a lot of time lost in the Woods, but it all comes out rather sweetly in the end. So go, if you can, for those few precious moments in the Wood.