Fairy tales are seductive. In them the poor get rich, the lonely find love, and everyone lives happily ever after. They are worlds of simple justice, where every good girl is beautiful and every villain a beast bound for destruction. Leave it to a composer as lyrical and dark as Stephen Sondheim to show us just how dangerous these stories can be. His haunting musical Into the Woods, currently running at Masquerade Theatre, is a deeply moving deconstruction of the fictions we cling to no matter how grown-up we've become.
Act one establishes the desires upon which myths are created. Cinderella (Sarah Hames) wants to go to the festival, and the Baker (Luther Chakurian) and his wife (Rebecca Smith) want a child. But as we are told, "some times the things most wished for are best not had." Because to get what they want, Cinderella, the Baker and his wife must venture into the woods, Freudian implications and all. Once there they must wind through the shadowy labyrinth of their own desires and fears and hold their own against such terrors as witches, wolves and giants.
The young and foolish fall victim to their own thoughtlessness. Little Red Riding Hood (Allison Sumrall) doesn't listen to her mother's good advice and skips off the well-worn path. Jack (Chad Grant) is bamboozled into selling his beloved milk-white cow for a handful of beans. Yellow-haired Rapunzel (Natalie Chakurian, sister of Luther), who has been locked away in tower by an overprotective mother, passively pines for the big wide world.
These time-honored tales become lovely metaphors for a collection of "modern-day" maladies that are, in fact, as ancient as the art of storytelling. Greed, familial estrangement and the loss of identity all lurk in these dark stories. And they are artfully woven together in a beautifully complex score that's gilded by Sondheim's extraordinary feel for irony.
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In "Hello Little Girl," the Wolf, who's played to a sexy hilt by Beau Gregersen, seduces Red Riding Hood while belting out, "No one can describe how it feels to talk to your meal!" And in the hilarious "Agony," two pin-headed, pompous princes bicker over who has the more troubled life. Cinderella's courtly guy (Matthew George) is always chasing after the runaway girl, "ten steps behind" his object of desire, while Rapunzel's hunk (also played by Gregersen) stands "ten steps below" his. You have no idea how it feels, he sings to his brother, "when you know she would go with you, if only there were doors!" Gleefully silly, the song is Sondheim at his most playful, and the two young actors who sing it are simply charming (as all princes should be).
Regardless of how hapless and hopeless the characters are, their fairy tales somehow manage to follow form, reaching the requisite "happily-ever-after ending" by the close of act one. Act two is a different story, however.
The Baker and his wife are in the process of discovering just how hard life gets with a baby on board. "Why does he always cry when I hold him," asks the Baker, handing over his bundle of "joy" to his irritable wife. Happily married Cinderella is strangely unfulfilled. But what troubles the entire community most is greed. Jack's giant is dead. He killed him after stealing his goose and golden harp. And it isn't long before a mammoth-size wife comes stomping down from the heavens, like some angry god, for revenge.
But all their bickering doesn't keep them from an inevitable return to the woods, where they must save themselves. This time, though, they are older and a bit wiser. Their biggest fear now is death. Red Riding Hood looks for the path she's supposed to take and discovers it is gone. "Mother warned me to never stray from the path," she says. "The path has strayed from you," answers the Baker. Life, it seems, has become much too complex for the simple wisdom of well-meaning mothers.
Even happily-ever-after marriages crumble in the troubles of the post-storybook world. The Baker's wife stumbles upon Cinderella's lascivious prince and loses herself in the dueling attractions of class and desire. During the song "Moments in the Woods," the prince puts his rarefied arms around the Baker's wife, singing, "as a peasant" she must surely know how to grab the present. She struggles with "shoulds and shouldn'ts," singing, "why not have both Is it always 'or'? Is it never 'and'?" Exploring the dichotomies of the adult world and the myths that are built out of the limitations of our language and lives, this song is Sondheim at his best -- smart, troubling and rich with paradox. And it is beautifully sung by Smith and George.
The cast, in fact, is an embarrassment of riches, filled with strong singers, including Luther Chakurian as the sweet-hearted Baker and Paula Smith as the wicked witch. And though Masquerade's sets and lights are limited by budget and space, the show, as directed by founder and producer Phillip K. Duggins, is one of the theater's most successful yet. As a genuinely moving exploration of the paradoxes and disappointments of growing older and wiser in our difficult world, Into the Woods casts an enchanting spell.
Into the Woods runs through December 18 at Masquerade Theatre, 1537 North Shepherd Drive, (713)861-7048. $10-$20.
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