The composer Stephen Sondheim, now seventy-nine, cut his Broadway teeth on such popular hits as “West Side Story,” “A Funny Thing Happened to Me on the Way to the Forum” and “Gypsy,” not that any of them were routine at the time; only that, on his own, his musicals—and the American musical form—became something more than for an audience of-towners or families to take in at an afternoon matinee. Sondheim’s rage of interests, from assassins to twins, from Bergman’s movie “Smiles of a Summer Night” to Aristophanes’ play “The Frogs,” from American history to Victorian barbers to the pointillist art of Seurat, all reflect an unconventional second take on customs and traditions. Sondheim gives twice as good as he gets.
In “Into the Woods,” the rousing new musical that opened the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s new season last Friday night, meticulously choreographed by the hot Broadway director Moisés Kaufman, fairy tales are the subject and their example (or their failings) is the theme. The musical, first staged in 1987 on Broadway with Bernadette Peters in the beguiling role of the Witch, is one of Sondheim’s most assured shows. It requires teamwork like clockwork as with most of his musicals—songs change and shift tempos in the middle of lyrics: it takes the organizational skills of a football team merged with a ballet troupe led by an operatic cast to pull off his tricky set pieces—which makes for a textured experience. Kaufman’s direction, with his own added touches, makes this presentation special; there may not be stars in the ensemble, but the show itself is better revealed to shine brightly.
The underlying theme, as written with Sondheim’s longtime collaborator, James Lapine, is that fairy tales are, indeed, about going into the dark woods and confronting the wild things (wolves, giants, witches) but represent more than the simple good / evil dichotomy that we have been taught. The spectacular opening sequence in which the characters emerge from a child’s bedroom’s open closet and out from under his bed (the first-rate sets are by Narelle Sissons) sets up the characters: Red Riding Hood (Dana Steingold), Cinderella (Lauren Worsham), Jack of Beanstalk fame (KC Comeaux) and his mother (Tina Stafford), as well as the Baker (Zachary Prince) and his Wife (Brynn O’Malley).
Their prologue song bounces along, as each fairy tale character sets forth into the woods to seek his fortune or help another. The first casualty, Riding Hood, is set upon by the Wolf (Claybourne Elder), whose song “Hello, Little Girl,” is funny and fast; yet the underlying desire to take her is not smothered in the Wolf’s costume (as a joke, he is made up to resemble Hugh Jackman’s X-Men sexy Wolverine character). Songs such as Jack’s mournful “I Guess This is Goodbye” sung to his cow, his only friend, whom his mother insists he sell begin to shape the show. By the first act’s end, attempts by the Witch (Michele Ragusa) to wreak havoc on the Baker and his Wife’s hopes to have a child have been dashed; Riding Hood has been saved; Jack has sold his cow but gained a golden harp and so forth. The last song, “Ever After,” would seem to sum up the story.
But not so fast: the second act reworks the first so that the fairy tale characters begin to sing of their uncertainty and mistrust of their so-called happy endings. Sondheim’s songs have always been dual-edged; in show after show, such as Sweeney Todd, a song will reveal itself differently, the emotions reflected inside out, the pessimism now in force where there was optimism earlier. Jack’s escape from the giant’s home by cutting down the beanstalk results in the giant’s wife’s appearance (here she is a booming disembodied voice); she destroys everything and everyone in her vengeful path in search of her husband’s killer. There is a nice moment when one character says in effect so what if they kill the giant, and another character says even giants have parents. The underlying idea of the show that we act out actions as adults that we learned as children, sometimes right but ofttimes wrong, is more cerebral than musical. In using the convention of fairy tale characters, with their rigid storylines, Sondheim and Lapine wish us to reconsider the idea of what wishing means.
So much happens in any Sondheim show that only professionals need apply. Kaufman’s cast includes several Sondheim veterans of Broadway and road shows and recordings (such as Brynn O’Malley and Zachary Prince). They mix well with established local artists such as Kip Niven, who plays both Cinderella’s Father and a Mysterious Man in brief scenes (he and Prince have a melancholy duet, “No More,” in the second half that is his finest work).
When I saw the 2002 Broadway revival with Vanessa Williams as the Witch, the star power was evident by the audience reaction more than by Williams’ singing. Kaufman gives each performer a moment, whether it is Niven’s duet or Comeaux’s turn as Jack singing to his cow (supplied by our great Kansas City puppeteer Paul Mesner), or, especially, Dana Steingold’s time onstage as Riding Hood. Her appearances take root in a way that grows over the course of the show: small, yet with a clear voice; feisty, though able to communicate fear early on, Steingold inhabits Riding Hood in a memorable way. This is not a show to take children to, necessarily, but adult children will find much to remember and much to ponder from their own pasts. Were you a Riding Hood or a Wolf? Were you busy wishing instead of living? If so, lie down on the couch and Dr. Sondheim will listen to your regrets.
“Into the Woods,” presented by the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, runs through October 4 at the Spencer Theatre, 4949 Cherry St., KCMO. For tickets and information: 816-235-2700 or online at www.kcrep.org.