The first thing you notice about Theatre Under the Stars' production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's fairy tale musical mashup, Into the Woods (1987), is its harmonious color. The palette chosen is so soothing to the eye, so complementary, that you wonder if you've ever seen such a scenically pulled-together show before. The costumes are based upon Ann Hould-Ward's originals, and I assume that Kevin Depinet's new set designs were tailored after these colorful marvels. It's all simple and elegant, with four trees moved about the stage by four Alpine Woodsmen in lederhosen to stand in for the eponymous woods, and the barest of scene pieces for the rest (palace steps, a jutting pier for Rapunzel's tower, three small picture frames to outline the houses of Cinderella, Jack of beanstalk fame, and the Baker and his Wife). Of course, do you need any thing else when the music and lyrics of Sondheim are so expansive?
Woods is definitely one of Sondheim's best and most profitable shows, performed all over by houses great and small, pro through amateur. Effortlessly tuneful and witty, it has a heart as well as that signature soignee attitude and ironic smile. It is also terribly clever, as it takes off from the Brothers Grimm and flies on its own Broadway fizz. Using fairy-tale characters, Cinderella and her Prince (Britney Coleman and Jeremy Hays), Jack (Tyler Jones), Rapunzel and her Prince (Jillian Gottlieb and Nick Bailey), Little Red Riding Hood and her Wolf (Kally Duling and Hays), and an invented couple, the Baker and his Wife (Jim Stanek and Stephanie Gibson), who could have stepped out of any other children's story, the musical slaps them together in a classic quest plot. And, naturally, there's a Narrator (Paul Slade Smith) to lead us into “once upon a time...” Oh, and there's a witch, too (Emily Skinner). A rap on the Baker's cottage door. “Oh, it's the witch next door,” says the Baker nonchalantly to his wife.
All good bedtime stories have a witch in them, or bad parents, or bad intentions, or little lies, or paths not taken. That's all here. The characters get their wishes fulfilled by the end of Act I. It's what happens next – the “every after” part – that occupies Act II and is the show's meat. Be careful what you wish for is one of the show's major themes. The other swirling theme is what you've done to realize such dreams. What compromises, deceits, working together, and/or blame. Did you cheat a dorky little boy into trading his cow for a handful of beans so you could get one of your required items to lift the curse? Did those beans, cursed long ago by the witch's mother, grow into a gigantic beanstalk that pierced the giant's lair? Seeking adventure, and later goaded by Red Riding Hood into proving his bravery, didn't Jack climb the stalk, befriend the giant's wife, then steal the gold? Didn't Cinderella's Prince, bored at the castle, find the Baker's Wife lost in the forest and have a “Moment in the Woods.” “I was brought up to be charming, not sincere,” he tells the Wife as he says goodbye after their tryst. Didn't the Witch lock up her daughter Rapunzel to keep her safe from the world, not realizing how much it would harm her?
Safe from the world. Hmm, you can't be safe from the world, sing Sondheim and Lapine. Everybody finds himself or herself in the woods, that subliminal place where all universal kid stories eventually wind up, and people are changed forever. “I Know Things Now,” sings the wiser Riding Hood after her seduction by the wolf. As in classic Grimm tales, eyes are pecked out, wolves are skinned, mothers die, fathers are useless and curses are borne. Yet “No One Is Alone” is the community mantra. We can get through this calamity together – the giantess rampaging through the countryside – if we try to work together. There are not always happy endings, but we must make the best of what we're responsible for and those dreadful things that happen that we're not responsible for. Come what may, we can choose the end of our own story.
Sondheim's in excellent voice in this show, skipping through the woods with a chic, contemporary jauntiness that is unlike his other musical works. The child in him comes through. Woods bubbles and bounces. As does the cast. With her Broadway-tight vibrato belt, Skinner (a former Tony nominee for Side Show) is a bitchy wise witch, then an elegant '40s Hollywood dreamboat when her own curse is lifted, but everyone else plays on her level. Particularly good are Gibson as the Baker's Wife; Jones as wide-eyed, dim Jack; Nick Bailey as Rapunzel's preening swain; Lauren Cohn as Jack's harried mother; and especially Coleman, as a radiantly creamy Cinderella.
There's never much sunshine throughout Sondheim, but Into the Woods, revamped under director Robert Longbottom, has more than its share of dappled light and reflected shade. Take the children (maybe not the littlest tykes), but tweens would benefit from the adult sophistication. It will make them think, hum a little and maybe not be so in thrall to that student prince at the locker down the hallway. You, too, might also pick up a few parenting tips among the songs. You know what Sondheim says — “Children Will Listen.”
Into the Woods continues at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through December 18. The Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-558-8887 or visit tuts.com. $38.50 to $116.