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Theatre Review: Into the Woods -- MTG's fairy tale dreams come true

By Vladimir V. Zelevinsky
Staff Reporter

Musical by Stephen Sondheim (music, lyrics) and James Lapine (book)

Produced by Carolyn Jones '00

Directed by Scott Gagnon

Orchestra direction by Rob Rucinski '99

Vocal direction by Jose Elizondo

Set design by Jennifer Condon

Lighting design by Stuart Levine

With Youngmoo Kim G, Cara Loughlin, Teresa DiGenova '99, Mary Tsien '01, Alan deLespinasse, Jamez Kirtley, John Harker '00, Teresa Raine '98, Jake Yara, and many others

An MIT Musical Theatre Guild presentation.

nce upon a time, there was a little girl, whose grandmother made her a bright red cloak with a hood, which became the girl so much that everyone called her Little Red Riding Hood. Once, when her grandmother became ill, the girl took a basket of sweetmeats and set out to deliver it to grandma. The girl entered the woods, and who did she meet but a baker.

Uh, wait a moment - she's supposed to meet a wolf. Are we in the land of fractured fairy tales? Well, no - the baker is here, not as a guest star of another story (Rapunzel), but as a full-fledged character and a denizen of the same world. After all, we're in the woods, and anything can happen here.

Into the Woods, as produced by the MIT Musical Theatre Guild, is a fulfillment of wishes. After a few consistently inconsistent shows in a row, MTG puts on a highly satisfying production of a famed Stephen Sondheim musical (there must be some special MTG/Sondheim connection - after all, the previous outstanding MTG production was Sweeney Todd two summers ago), and succeeds in every single aspect. Into the Woods is simultaneously funny and touching, whimsical and sincere, spare and evocative.

As a matter of fact, aside from a couple of technical rough spots, the only not-quite excellent aspect of the production was, shockingly enough, the source itself, most obvious in the second act. Into the Woods is no doubt a remarkable musical play, but most aspects of this production are even more remarkable.

Sondheim's story is a dense contrapuntal interweaving of four main fairy-tale stories (Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Cinderella), with a few others (Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, for example) mentioned as well. The main idea of the show is remarkably simple: when you think of fairy tales, doesn't it seem that all of them take place in some special, magical, far-away world, which is one and the same for all of them? Sondheim takes this idea and runs away with it: Little Red Riding Hood meets both Jack, climbing down the beanstalk, and Cinderella, who had already married Prince Charming (himself in agony since he's caught between two tales at once, trying to decide between Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty). During the course of the musical, the stories which we all know from our childhood run their course, quite predictably, to the familiar ending - and then keep going.

Did I mention that all of this is utterly hilarious? Director Scott Gagnon (who also helmed the effervescent Ruddigore at MITG&S last fall) fills the show with plethora of small throw-away jokes (I would not condescend to call them "gags"). Each of them is consistently amusing by itself, but taken together, they create a light, airy, whimsical, fairy-tale-like ambiance. I don't usually like modern references, but even they can work on the level of connotations - I thought it was very funny that Little Red Riding Hood's Wolf looks very much like Howard Stern.

Because of this whimsical ambiance, the mood of the show is so agile that it can, without any prior warning, switch into a totally serious mode without skipping a beat. The line between adventure, comedy, and tragedy in fairy tales is blurry (just recall what happens to Cinderella's wicked stepsisters in the original ending of that story), and so it is in Into the Woods.

Gagnon's nimble direction is perfectly complemented by orchestral (Rob Rucinski) and vocal (Jose Elizondo) directors. It is always a major issue in small productions to balance the orchestra (usually, too loud) and singers (usually, not loud enough), but this production manages to do to with ease, by doing one simple thing - the orchestra is playing backstage, and therefore doesn't interfere with the line of hearing between the actors and the audience. Of course, this arrangement creates a problem for the singers, since they can't see the conductor. However, almost all the vocal entrances were perfectly on time. And if there were a couple of moments when a pitch felt wrong, well, that's Sondheim for you. You never know - it might have been intentional.

To highlight any of the actors of the huge - eighteen people, all principal players! - ensemble is absolutely impossible (for which I respectfully beg their pardons). Into the Woods doesn't have a clear lead, and it compensates smaller parts by making them funnier. All the principal players are perfectly convincing, and the supporting ones are at the very least very funny.

The cast and crew work hard in Act I, and they have to work even harder in Act II, when the musical itself hits a few slow spots. When Sondheim has fun with simple fairy-tale plots, Into the Woods is both complex and profound. When in Act II the mood turns much more somber and the focus shifts to examining much more complex issues, the musical paradoxically becomes a tad simplistic and preachy - and it's fully to the credit of the MTG people that is almost doesn't feel this way.

Of course, the second act has more than a few pleasures of its own - the actors, having previously defined their characters, can now explore them deeper, and the central theme of the musical becomes clear. Also, call me a stickler for technical proficiency, but the aspect of the show I enjoyed most was a truly fantastic lighting design, and in Act II it is absolutely spellbinding.

The final song is a treat as well, and ties into a single knot two main themes of Into the Woods. Fairy tales always have a clear point and a sharp distinction between good and evil, and that's why they are told to children as lessons in basic morality and encapsulated life experiences. But there's a higher level of complexity in life, and there are no clear solutions to life's problems, and it's up to every one of us to apply the lessons which we learned in childhood from simplistic fairy tales.

When we learn to ignore their built-in limitations and transcend the stories capped by convenient happy endings, it is then, I guess, that we really grow up and become adults, trying to understand what it really means to live happily ever after.