Never wear mauve to a ball… or pink… or open your mouth.
Cinderella’s Step Family (Into the Woods)
Running away- go to it.
Where did you have in mind?
-Mysterious Man (Into the Woods)
For me it was my mother. The one who gave those single sentence parables that define our life. My own spoonfuls of motherly wisdom included, “Shoot Luke! The Sky’s full of geese, and “Walk like you know where you’re going.” These are the foundation for everything that follows from “Don’t wear white after labor day,” into”turn the other cheek.” These core beliefs bare the weight of years, actions, and dare I say moments- until in a life ending second they fail. They fail to explain the monster, wolf, giant, witch, or even a cheating lover. The event or person that stole not only your gold, or life, or friend but your truth.
So you must form your own truth. And you try desperately to pass it to your children. Who of course must make their own.
I don’t know if the director of Stockton University’s Production of Into the Woods had a child in mind. I do know that this vibrant, energetic, humorous, and fluid rendition of an American classic has a new ambitious sense of vision. Gone, are the children’s theatre costumes lifted from the pages of the Grimm’s brothers. Gone, are the cardboard perspective shifting trees, the Oklahoma style ensemble that comes out just in time for the big number. Instead we have an aesthetic shaped more by Rent, Spring Awakening, and that Green-day musical I’ve already forgotten. Here we have large hollowed out spaces, moving set pieces, and a reach so close to the audience that those in the first rows will experience a sense of intimacy unnatural but oh so welcome in a show that must appease a 500 seat house. The set is assembled from the bones of the very theatre in which you sit with equipment, furniture, and tools to give that “Oh, this vital item was just lying around” feeling. The shift from “Once Upon a Time” to a high school theatre might feel gimmicky if the cast gave us any time to think about it. But before you can make a single sanctimonious comment on the subject you are swept up by the charm and power of Sondheim’s music and Stockton’s production.
The cast owned the replacement archetypes of the new production. Princes in leather, with crop top step sisters flew in and out of our sights each giving the impression they were a lead in their own minds. The ensemble functioned as pack, trees, birds, and those undefinable hurdles. In the ecstatic chaos of the opening act the leads were often suppressed, defined by the ever moving river of forces beating against them. It was only as the play progressed that the ensemble began to leave the stage providing an atmosphere of silence and loneliness. The Step-family was delightfully cruel, the wolf’s “gang” invoked Grease or West-Side Story. Each member of the ensemble set the rules by which the audience consciously or otherwise came to depend. It was within this cacophony that individual voices literally and figuratively had to rise above. The witch, a beautiful part was played maniacally, tenderly, humorously, and dangerously, all without a hint of contradiction. The Baker’s Wife commanded the stage, her husband, and our attention. The Baker and Cinderella’s human warmth give the piece its soul. While Jack and Little Red entertained and frustrate us to no end. And of course we cannot forgive our poor unfortunate ringmaster, the Narrator, whose sarcastic and dominating prose comes to an early but not quite unforeseen end.
Each design element brought this to life. The costumes merged at least two worlds into one space combining youthful punk energy and traditional fairy tales. With details woven throughout that you must be careful to catch. The set was vibrant despite its emptiness, cluttered in its minimalism. The lights captured mood as much as actor. The orchestra was juxtaposed against the constant movement of the set, lights, actors, ensemble and even their own notes. A small focused orchestra that provide the anchor to this world. Even joining in when it suited them and us.
If you enjoy musicals see this show. If you don’t like musicals- see this show. If you support Stockton University see the show. Come if you have family. Come if you don’t. See these young actors take on some of the most professionally difficult roles written in this great american tradition. See them step up to the plate and swing every time. Do they occasionally miss, sure, this is Stephen Sondheim after all but when they do they are still swinging and we are still cheering.
And for the purist? Those who have every moment of the Bernadette Peters version memorized. Remember, the spirit of the piece not the letter. Yes, I still think that every line of Into the Woods is beautiful and necessary. Yes, I love the James Lapine creation. But no truth is universal. No moral absolute. And as Into the Woods is a work of art worthy of the masters likewise does each new imagining form new meanings.
But please always remember to walk like you know where you’re going.
Until Next Time,
Lane McLeod Jackson
P.S. The night I saw did not provide a program as I was a stowaway. And while I knew a large number of the designer and actor names I did not know them all. So to avoid leaving no one out I ignored names entirely.