Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel are all tales we know well… or do we? This is the question we are faced with in Long Beach Playhouse’s excellent production of Into the Woods.
After reading about the musical’s subject matter, I decided that my date would be my 7-year-old son Bram. He had just seen his first musical a few months earlier (Beauty and the Beast) and was anxious to see another. At three hours total (broken into two acts with an intermission), I wasn’t sure he would be up for it. Fortunately, my fears turned out to be all for naught. This is a musical that can be enjoyed by young and old alike.
Into the Woods was written by James Lapine and the legendary Stephen Soundheim (Soundheim’s lyrical credits include such classics as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Sweeney Todd, and West Side Story). This “fractured fairy tale” begins by weaving together several well-known characters of European folklore.
Most of us believe that these staple characters originated with the Brothers Grimm, but the full story is slightly more complicated. These characters originated in European folklore aeons ago; their authors are unknown. The tales were merely compiled by the Grimm Brothers, and for each tale there are multiple versions. The Disney-fied versions most of us viewed as children are notoriously (and due to their intended audience, perhaps necessarily) bowdlerized and truncated. The original tales offer a darker and more complex tableau than we’re used to. Soundheim and Lapine bring us both sides of the story; they bring this depth to their musical in subtle and clever ways that can almost go unnoticed.
In Act I, we are introduced to Cinderella, Jack, Rapunzel and Red. These familiar plots and characters are braided together with an original tale of a childless Baker couple and, of course, a wicked witch. In this first act there is a curse, a quest, a climax, and a resolution. The good triumph, and the wicked are punished. It’s everything that we expect from a fairytale, and we are not disappointed.
But the tale has only begun.
Act I ends as a typical fairy tale would, but Soundheim has more to tell; in real life, one never lives “happily ever after,” and no one is either completely good or completely evil. Act II begins with our “happy” characters adjusting to their new realities, and soon enough, wishing for more. Soundheim and Lapine remind us that life is the journey, not a destination. Actions can have consequences that can be serious, unforeseen, and long-term. The characters’ discontent leads to the “missing pieces” of Grimm’s tales: infidelity, murder, blame, and loss. Yet we also find cooperation, community, trust, and forgiveness. This may sound serious, but the authors’ genius presents all this in uplifting melodies and comic dialogue. The musical works on two levels: food for thought wrapped up in Tony-winning songs.
Into the Woods is directed by Gregory Cohen, who deserves credit for putting together a fine production. Russell Montooth, as both the Narrator and Mysterious Man, does an excellent job as our guide through this fantastic tale. Michelle Zelina, the Wicked Witch, steals virtually every scene she’s in and somehow manages to transform from an old, ugly witch (with green skin) into a beautiful, younger version of herself within minutes… a feat that I’m still scratching my head over! But it’s the performances of Owen Lovejoy and Jocelyn Adams (the Baker and his Wife) that are the emotional anchor for the audience. Lovejoy’s honesty draws us in, and Adams’s dynamic scope of emotion is well-paired with her impressive vocal talent. Kudos also goes out to those behind the costumes; I can honestly say I’ve never seen finer costumes in any production.
Meaghan Gates and Joey Nestra make for a melodious Cinderella and Jack. Dana Benedict plays a spirited Little Red. Taylor Magee’s Rapunzel proves she has the pipes in her short but sweet performance.
Walking back to the car with my son, I wondered how much of the second act he appreciated. As he grabbed my hand he started skipping and singing, “Into the woods… into the woods we go!”
We all must go “into the woods” and live our lives, not happily ever after, but in the real world. Looking at my son, and singing along with him, I realized that the real world has happiness and joy in many places and moments.
If you can make it to one of the remaining performances, do so… I guarantee you’ll find some happiness and joy too.
Into the Woods will play at the Long Beach Playhouse through July 29. The venue is located at 5201 E. Anaheim St. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are $24 general admission, $21 for seniors, and $14 for students/children. For tickets and more information, call (562) 494-1014 or visit lbplayhouse.org .