By Jason and Alisha Hagey
Brigham Young University’s production of Into the Woods at the Pardoe Theatre in Provo takes us into the story of a childless baker and his wife who are told by a witch that they will be able to conceive if they can bring her four items: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold.
In the search for these items, the baker and his wife come upon Little Red Riding Hood, Jack of Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and Cinderella. Their stories all begin to intertwine. By the end of the first act, each character achieves their goals. They get ‘their wish.’ The second act deals with the reality, the consequences of their actions – what it took to get what they wanted.
Into the Woods director Dallyn Vail Bayles warns audiences to remember not to leave after Act 1 of the production because it is Act 2 that really digs deep into what the heart of the musical is about.
“What [James] Lapine and [Stephen] Sondheim wanted to say was, ‘Well, happily ever after is a wonderful idea, but it’s usually not that easy,’” said Bayles. “Especially because these characters are a little dishonest in getting what they want. They tell a little lie, they have to steal something, Jack kills the giant and there are other deceitful actions made in order to get what they want. Those choices have consequences. The creators wanted to show what happens after happily ever after or as Sondheim put it, ‘Act 1 is the happily; Act 2 is the ever after.’” Truly, the play is an indictment of selfishness in each of us and that when we have a lack of concern for others, we will suffer even at the moment that we believe we have received that which we wished for. Our selfishness means that we will lose something. And the characters all lose something.
Bayles’ direction points up to this suffering for selfishness from the very beginning. There is a looming already in the air behind every character as they make their wishes. The actors provide a kind of bittersweet resentment to their situations and their wishes. The characters are self-aware enough to let the sense of nihilism in their greedy desires come through in their wishing. Michael Kraczek’s lighting aids these first scenes to create a murky start to what is otherwise meant to be fantastical fairy-tales. Instead of bright and fanciful, the production is brooding right from the beginning. Already, the production is letting us know, through a kind of foreshadowed melancholy, that everything will not be okay. This has the effect of drawing the audience in, telling the audience that ‘nothing is quite as it seems,’ and building a suspense to the play the way that a taut thriller does.
This suspense was followed through both with the costuming by Dennis Wright and hair and makeup by Sarah Bult. Everything was unbalanced, uneven (hemlines, layers, clashing fabrics.) They were referencing the art of James Christensen, sometimes direct representations, but they used his art to create tension in the lines and patterns of each costume. While the costume, hair, and makeup felt like they were in concert, this idea of tapping into Christensen’s work was muddied a bit with reference to set and lighting. The set design was all it needed to be, it just didn’t play up to the director’s desire to pay tribute to Christensen.
The Baker and his wife are the central characters – though this is very much an ensemble piece – and Joseph Swain (the Baker) and Channing Weir (the Baker’s wife) do well in being the glue to the show. They are a team that keeps the audience grounded. The gamut of emotions that the two actors have to portray is both funny and heartbreaking. Of all the actors, Swain’s comic timing helps to make dark moments lighter, but he does a superb job of being our emotional core in the end. He’s lost, and we feel lost with him. He’s angry, and we feel angry with him. He’s scared, and we feel scared with him. Weir is a support to him and her emotional investment in their quest plays well with Swain and the two connect with the audience as we easily become them.
Chip Zien, the actor who originated the role of the Baker, said the following:
The Baker starts out being a bungling, slightly foolish man who finally realizes that in order to get what he wants – which is to dispel the curse on his house and have a child – he will have to commit himself to falsehood and deceit. His journey is one of painful self-discovery. Out of all the survivors, he probably loses the most, but he is also the one who grows the most.
Because of Swain’s and Weir’s strong, natural, and human performances, we too, as an audience, grow by the end of the show. No less instrumental, Libby Lloyd (Cinderella) provides us with a counterbalance. Her portrayal is just as human, but she does well to bring a lightness to the dark side of these stories. What Lloyd did brilliantly was bring Cinderella into a sensible place. She was clear that when she wanted to go to the ball, it wasn’t to meet a prince and fall in love. Instead, she just wanted the experience of a beautiful dress and three evenings off from being treated poorly. The prince became an afterthought; a byproduct of magic and appetite. She represents the well-intentioned decisions in life that spiral out of control.
As in the Broadway revival production, Milky White (Cagen Tregeagle) was no longer a prop but an anthropomorphised cow. Tregeagle was delightful, lending the right amount of humor and apathy. With the same humor, the audience loved both Preston Taylor (Cinderella’s Prince) and Benjamin Raymant (Rapunzel’s Prince). Whether it was the poofy hair that charmed over audiences or their over-the-top seriousness, they added the right panache to the fan favorite “Agony.”
Not every moment of Into the Woods is kid friendly (what happens to the Wolf, the Stepsisters, and Jack’s mother, just to name a few). If you are unfamiliar with the musical, you might want to read up on it before deciding to bring your children.
For those in love with the filmed Broadway production, there are a few changes. There is an additional song between the Witch and Rapunzel (“Our Little World”) and a few lyric changes to other songs. These changes shift the moral center of the play slightly. Because of the new lyric changes in “Last Midnight” you lose the honesty of the Witch for a greater sense of moral ambiguity. Originally the Witch would sing, “I’m not good; I’m not nice; I’m just right.” With the changes to the text from the 2002 Broadway revival she now sings, “You’re so pure, but stay here and in time you’ll mature, and grow up to be them so let’s fly, you and I. Far away.” She sings this as a dark lullaby to the young baby. She no longer points the finger but rather looks for escapism.
About the play, Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) said the following:
All fairy-tales are parables about steps to maturity. The final step is when you become responsible for the people around you, when you feel connected to the rest of the world. For me, it isn’t just parents and children, but everybody who teaches or who is an artist. ”No One Is Alone” is about how we are all interconnected.
BYU’s production of Into the Woods works its magic in leading the audience through the steps of maturity until that final step when we understand the play’s message. Bayles, through the story of the play, reminds us that we are responsible for the people around us. We must step outside of our selfish, personal desires and realize that our world is in part a result of our own actions and reactions to those we connect with on a daily basis, and sometimes those we momentarily come across in the woods of life.
Brigham Young University presents Into the Woods. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by James Lapine.
Brigham Young University, Pardoe Theater, Harris Fine Arts Center, Provo, UT 84602
Nov. 17–18, Nov. 29–Dec. 2, Dec. 5–9 7:30 PM and Nov. 18, Dec. 2, 9 2:00 PM Post-performance discussions Nov. 30 and Dec. 7, ASL interpreted performance Nov. 30
Tickets: $14-26 ($6-7 off with BYU or student ID, $2 off for senior citizens or BYU alumni, $14 Tuesday evening)
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