The classic Grimm Brothers fairy tales with have been done onstage more times than Cinderella had to scrub her wicked stepmother’s kitchen floor.
But Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical “Into the Woods,” playing at Issaquah’s Village Theatre through Oct. 21, takes those tales that we all grew up with and adds a dark spin, so that suddenly, the stories don’t quite follow the path that we might predict.
In one big witch’s cauldron of musical theatre, the plot mixes bits from what seems like nearly every fairy tale. From “Rapunzel” to “Jack in the Beanstalk” to “Little Red Riding Hood,” the characters’ journeys intertwine through their common need of traveling through the dangerous woods — a theme in many fairy tales — to accomplish their goals.
In a village at the edge of a wood, a baker and his wife wish for a baby, but are unable to have one due to a curse placed on them by Rapunzel’s witch. The witch promises to lift the curse if they can get her four specific ingredients for a magic potion from the woods. Cinderella needs to travel through the same woods to sneak off to the prince’s ball. Little Red Riding Hood sets off through the woods to bring food to her grandmother. And poor, unintelligent Jack in the Beanstalk traverses the woods to sell his cow at market because she won’t give milk.
All of the characters meet and influence each other’s stories in both subtle and more direct ways. They run into their hurdles — Cinderella loses her shoe and must hide her midnight travels from her stepmother and stepsisters, Little Red Riding Hood must rescue her grandmother from the belly of a wolf, Jack sells off his cow for a few seemingly worthless “magic” beans, and the baker and his wife struggle to find (and keep hold of) the four magic items. Meanwhile, Rapunzel, living in a tower in the middle of the woods, meets a mysterious prince who visits her tower by night.
An audience member — especially a fan of Disney films — cannot help but be swept up in the intricate twists and turns of the complex plot over the course of Act I, sitting on the edge of their seat as they hope that their favorite character gets the happy ending they deserve.
The heartfelt, emotion-filled acting, especially from the baker (Trey Ellett), his wife (Christine Marie Brown) and Cinderella (Allison Standley) creates well-rounded characters that elicit our sympathy and draw us into the woods along with them. The plot may be fantastical, but the characters and their desires — to have a child, escape poverty, if only for a day, care for a relative and keep a friend nearby — are so believable and relatable that of course we root for them.
By the time intermission hits, you feel like you’ve been on such a roller coaster of storytelling and such a load of songs that it’s a surprise only one act has gone by; many people sitting near me assumed that the show was a one-act and it was over. Indeed, the plotlines for each character wrap up very nicely at the end of the first act and the characters all finish at the edge of the stage with a slam-bang musical number. Recommendation: anyone bringing young children to the show — or really, anyone who is a fan of happy endings — should leave at intermission and go home with a smile on their faces.
Act II is where the show veers off into the wacky, bizarre and depressing section of the woods. This is not a critique of Village’s performance by any means, but of Sondheim’s and Lapine’s script. The actors performed their parts with high emotion, and gave some of their most moving musical performances of the evening in this act.
Unfortunately, the characters’ “happily ever afters” take a nosedive. An all-new villain terrorizes them, while the villain of Act I is suddenly their ally, causing the story to feel more like a quickly-written sequel capitalizing off of Part I’s box office success. A bloodbath takes place before our eyes, as one by one, the characters we came to love in Act I are killed off. The only element of the tale that is at all Disney-like at this point is that everyone who is a mother dies.
Still, in Village’s production, Act II’s disappointments are eclipsed by the overall high quality of performance and production. This includes not only the actors but also the set and costumes, which blend together nicely to create an entertaining scene all of their own.
The stage is made up of spindly, eerie trees with ladders for trunks and paper for leaves. In the center, a revolving turntable, designed with rocks and varying levels to convey the forest floor
Scenic designer Matthew Smucker (whose previous Village credits include “Cabaret,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,”
“The Foreigner” and “Shadowlands”) said that while the set could be thought of as minimalist, going without the multiple backdrops and fly-ins of other shows, it was “actually a pretty complex set in some ways for the theatre to realise.”
Having a set of “climbable surfaces that would allow the actors to access the verticality of the space in exciting ways” he said, provides the opportunity for the actors to “be able to climb up in more real ways that other kinds of trees wouldn’t allow.”
The notion of using pieces of paper as leaves for the trees came from the folkloric “wish trees” of Eastern Asia and Great Britain. At a wish tree, people write down their wishes or leave other offerings in the hopes that their desires will be fulfilled.
“The idea of the wishing tree grew into idea of these wishes as the foliage,” Smucker said. “The idea of wishes comes so directly out of the script. ‘I wish’ are the first and the last words of the show. It’s the idea that these wishes, these desires of the characters, are what the world is made out of.”
In the second act, as the wishes of the characters begin to fall apart, Smucker explained that the stage becomes littered with the foliage of the trees, evoking a sense of winter to Act I’s summer. The “actors have to find their own way around, they no longer have this neat frame [of a fairy tale] around them.”
Costume designer Melanie Burgess, who has worked with Village every year for nearly two decades (most recently “A Proper Place” in March), previously collaborated with Smucker in “Jesus Christ Superstar” and was glad to have the chance to create a show together again. These kinds of collaborations are wonderful, she said, because the entire production team works together to hear suggestions from everyone, no matter what their specialty.
“When it can happen like that, when you can trust the group of people you’re sitting around talking about the show with, that’s incredible and very, very exciting,” she said.
The costumes all convey the idea of fairy tales and days of yore, but without sticking to a specific era. This sense of ambiguity adds to the magical, unreal feel of the show. Some of the costumes match the set — the witch’s moss-colored dress and branched headdress make her look like one of the trees, and Cinderella’s golden ballgown goes well with the hanging paper lanterns (another object of old folklore).
“In early stages of design, once I saw some of the images Matt was looking at, I knew that I wanted the costumes to be very layered,” Burgess said. She said that “up-cycling’ — when a “you go to Goodwill, buy a sweater, tear it apart and put it back together in a different way” — played a large role in many of the characters’ costumes.
“Several of the stories required that aesthetic,” she said, pointing to poorer characters with patched clothing, such as the Cinderella, the Baker and his wife, and Jack and his mother.
For Little Red Riding Hood’s cape, Burgess “took six different sweaters took them all apart, got that patchwork feeling.” Burgess said that this costume is her favorite of the entire show.
“The dress itself is very reminiscent of dress I used to make for my daughters in the ’90s,” she said.
“Into the Woods” plays Wednesdays through Sundays and select Tuesdays through Oct. 22 at the Francis J. Gaudette Theatre, located at 303 Front St. N. in Issaquah, before moving to Everett from Oct. 27 through Nov. 19. For tickets, call the box office at 425-392-2202 or visit www.villagetheatre.org/issaquah/into-the-woods.php.