Into and out of the woods

Splendid student production brings brilliant musical to life

The Baker (Connor Norton) with Little Red Riding Hood (Brittney Nussbaum).

The Baker (Connor Norton) with Little Red Riding Hood (Brittney Nussbaum).

Photo by Jason Halley

Into the Woods, Friday, Oct. 14, Harlen Adams Theatre, Chico State.

To understand why last week’s staging of Into the Woods at Chico State’s Harlen Adams Theatre was such a splendid achievement, it helps to know something about the play and its co-creator, Stephen Sondheim.

Sondheim, who is now 85, is the reigning titan of American musical theater, the author of music and/or lyrics for such extraordinary works as West Side Story (1957), Gypsy (1959), Sweeney Todd (1979) and Into the Woods (1987), which many consider his most brilliant musical.

He’s won more honors than he can count, including eight Tony awards, eight Grammys, a Pulitzer, an Oscar and a Kennedy Center honor, among many others.

Throughout his career he has pushed to expand the reach of musical theater. West Side Story is about warring street gangs, a hugely controversial subject at the time. Sweeney Todd is about a vicious serial killer; Gypsy about a striptease artist.

In Sondheim’s world, light and dark have equal billing, joy and sorrow exist side by side. So it’s not surprising that, when he and his then-collaborator, James Lapine, wrote a musical based on fairy tales, it was more Brothers Grimm than Walt Disney. If there’s a happily-ever-after in Into the Woods, it’s a tenuous one. A giant’s huge boot could squash it at any moment.

The musical weaves together several familiar characters: Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (of beanstalk fame) and golden-haired Rapunzel. They are connected by two new characters, the Baker and his Wife, who are childless because of a curse put on them by the Witch who lives next door. The Witch agrees to lift the curse if they will go into the woods and collect four things: a slipper “as pure as gold,” a cape “as red as blood,” a “cow as white as milk” and “hair as yellow as corn.”

By the end of Act I, all wishes have come true. Cinderella and Rapunzel have been rescued by handsome princes; Jack has climbed the beanstalk and stolen the giant’s harp; Little Red Riding Hood and her Granny have been freed from inside the Wolf’s stomach; the Baker and his Wife have had a baby; and the Witch has transformed into a beautiful woman, though it has cost her her powers.

In Act II, it all falls apart. A second giant threatens the village. The princes cheat on their wives. The Baker and his Wife bicker endlessly. It’s as if the very existence of fairy tales, with their happy endings, is being questioned. Happy ever after? Maybe, maybe not.

Most of this complex and darkly twisted story is conveyed not through expository dialogue—though there is a Narrator who provides occasional bridges between scenes—but through songs. And what amazing songs they are, complex and layered, with lyrics that brilliantly convey the play’s sometimes startling, sometimes moving developments, from the opening “Prologue: Into the Woods” to the beautiful finale, “Children Will Listen.”

There were 19 students in the cast, and all were excellent, so I’m loathe to single anyone out. The singing was exceptional across the board, and the actors handled the production’s terrifically complex blocking with ease. Just about everything worked: the costumes, the deeply layered and flexible set design, the lighting and choreography, the excellent pit orchestra—you name it. The only weakness had to do with the microphones, which occasionally were late in turning on.

That’s a quibble. This was one of the finest productions I’ve ever seen mounted at Chico State.