April 19, 2017

Fairy Tale Characters Meet When They Venture “Into the Woods”: Lewis Center Presents Sondheim and Lapine Musical at McCarter

The Lewis Center for the Arts is presenting Into the Woods in the Berlind Theatre at McCarter. In this musical, fairy tale characters undertake individual quests, encountering temptations — and each other — along the way. The music and lyrics are by Stephen Sondheim, and the book is by James Lapine. An imaginative directorial concept and strong performances reward audiences for joining these characters on their journey.

This production, which celebrates the launch of Princeton University’s Program in Music Theater, is part of a spring semester course that provides students with rigorous experience in creating theater under near-professional circumstances. The students have worked with a professional director (Ethan Heard), design team, and stage manager either performing an onstage role or serving on the production team.

Mr. Heard’s concept fits the academic venue; the new setting is a library with forest-themed wallpaper, where the stories are brought to life from pop-up books. In this version, the narrator is a young woman instead of an old man. She pulls books from the shelves and mixes them up, just as the story mixes traditional fairy tales.

A baker and his wife wish to have a child, but a family curse prevents them from doing so. The witch who cursed the baker’s family demands that they procure four objects: “a cape as red as blood, a slipper as pure as gold, a cow as white as milk, and hair as yellow as corn.” Little Red Riding Hood is sent to take a basket to her grandmother, and Jack is sent to sell his beloved cow. Cinderella flees her stepmother and stepsisters to attend her ball, or “festival.”

To get what they wish, the characters must interact with their counterparts from other stories. In this respect, the 1987 musical anticipates the TV series Once Upon a Time.

Each character must deal with temptations along the way; the wolf tries to lure Little Red Riding Hood away from her task. Even the baker and his wife encourage Jack to sell his cow for beans instead of coins, without knowing whether or not the beans are magical.

Mr. Lapine wanted to write “something that was fun, but packed a punch,” the librettist told Craig Zadan, a Sondheim biographer. Mr. Sondheim, whose generation was the target audience for The Wizard of Oz, wanted to write a fairy tale “quest musical.”

The Wizard of Oz influences the opening number, in which the recurring title chorus links individual songs about each character’s wishes. A variety of musical styles — operetta, blues, even rap — gives a distinct voice to each of the characters throughout the show.

After the beans grow, Jack climbs his beanstalk to explore a world of “Giants in the Sky.” During the second act, the characters must put aside their own needs to survive as a community, as they face dire consequences for actions Jack takes during this visit — as well as mistakes they made while on their own journeys. The library setting will be important during this crisis.

Music Department alumna Emily Whitaker’s musical direction is crisp and precise. Mr. Sondheim is known for being skillfully verbose — a parody of a song from one of his other shows begins, “another hundred lyrics just flew out of my brain” — but this cast delivers with clarity lines such as “Not forgetting the tasks unachievable, mountains unscalable — if it’s conceivable but unavailable.”

The sets by Reid Thompson offer an artfully disorienting effect, as the library walls often move. Costume designer Mio Guberinic has allowed the wolf and Cinderella’s Prince — a dual role both in the original production and this one — to wear the same leather pants, underlining the predatory seductiveness shared by the two characters.

Meagan Raker (Class of ’18), a soprano, is outstanding as Cinderella. She has an exquisite voice, and her acting deftly highlights Cinderella’s character arc. Like Giselle in the musical film Enchanted, Cinderella outgrows her fairy tale environment. “My father’s house was a nightmare; your house was a dream. Now I want something in between,” she tells her Prince.

As the Princes, Jared Brendon Hopper (’18) and Nico Krell (’18) are a joint tour de force in “Agony,” in which they commiserate about their romantic frustrations. Emma Watkins (’18) is strong in her dual performance as Cinderella’s Mother and Rapunzel. Milky White, Jack’s cow, is a prop in some productions; here it has become an entertaining mime, performed by Marshall Schaffer (’20).

Professor Stacy Wolf’s Princeton University courses have included “The Musical Theatre of Stephen Sondheim: Process to Production” and “Isn’t It Romantic? The Broadway Musical from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Sondheim.” She does much to foster discussion about musical theatre, by hosting conversations with Broadway professionals, and making segments of her classes open to the public. Here, Professor Wolf is fearsome as the voice of the giant.

New audiences, as well as those who have seen previous productions (as has this writer), will enjoy venturing Into the Woods with this talented cast and production crew. Of course, those students who pursue musical theatre as a career will face their own formidable quest. However, if this promising performance is any indication, they may well “find there’s hope of getting through the journey.”

“Into the Woods” will play in the Berlind Theatre at McCarter Theatre Center through April 22. For tickets call (609) 258-9220,  (609) 258-2787 (McCarter). or visit arts.princeton.edu/events/into-the-woods/2017-04-14.