Into the Woods
Stephen Sondheim (Music & Lyrics); James Lapine (Book)
The Mountain Play
What better way to get in the mood to enjoy an afternoon of Into the Woods than to walk on a path through a forest of mighty trees after traveling by bus, car, or even foot halfway up a mighty mountain? Now far away from the Bay and a City that can be seen through a gap in the forest, we as audience settle into the mountain’s grand, outdoor arena as The Mountain Play presents Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine’s (book) multi-Tony-nominated-and-winning Into the winning (1988, 2002, 2023).
The Mountain Play accentuates in hundreds of touches large and small the humor and whimsical nature of the brilliant lyrics and book while at the same time finding ways to touch our hearts and draw a tear or two as we watch the familiar childhood stories find new lives. With a crackerjack cast full of superb voices and an impressive orchestra of delightful musicality, The Mountain Play scores a big hit in its 110th season as the Company presents this fractured, farcical, fairy tale that is a musical impossible not to love.
With many nooks, crannies, hiding spots, and hallways, a structure of wooden beams whose three levels are connected by multiple ladders and steps looms large on the stage. Designed by Andrea Bechert, the set is as tall as the nearby trees and yet has the looks of something a kid might build in the backyard. From its scores of hiding and posing places, characters peek and peer as the multiple stories unfold around, under, and over them. All are costumed by Amie Schow in fantastical manners that sometimes resemble the pictures in a Grimms’ book and sometimes look like children might have created them as they rummaged through closets, cabinets, or an attic. A cow is a bike; a Giant is a combination of green umbrellas and what could be slices and pieces of vegetables; horses are the stick toys of little kids; and birds that are like those made from folded paper that hang from hand-held frames maybe once wire hangers in a closet. Director Nicole Helfer never lets us forget we are watching stories we once knew so well as children but stories that now take different twists and turns as they collide their tales into a one conglomeration of hopes and dreams that run amok.
After being assaulted at audience’s edge by two hoodlums and having his bike stolen, a modern-dressed boy wanders onto the stage to open a book and pronounce the obligatory, “Once upon a time.” Ilán Casian-Issenberg is excellent as an always present, watchful Narrator who moves about in-the-midst-of-it-all, unnoticed by anyone but known by all to be in control of the story – until he is not.
After his prompt, a neighborhood of faces familiar to any Western Civilization child emerges and immediately begins to wish for something out of reach. Cinderella cannot go to the Festival while her step-uglies are all a titter about meeting the Prince there. Jack and his mother are starving; and she sends him off to sell their bony, white cow (who happens to be his best friend). The local witch has towered away her daughter Rapunzel and has doomed the baker and his wife childless (the only two characters not found in our growing-up fairytale books). Little Red Ridinghood heads out to Grandma’s house to meet you-know-whom along the way. Together, the entire group joyfully and hopefully sings, “Into the woods to get my wish, I don’t care how, time is now.”
Much of Act One is centered on the Baker and his Wife looking to break the next-door Witch’s curse once given to his father (who stole some beans from her yard). All they have to do to remedy the wife’s barren condition is find “the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold” – all of which we as audience immediately can identify but which they have no clue and must find, lose, and re-find while trapsing and arguing through the woods. Kevin Singer and Melissa Wolfklain each bring defining personalities and magnificent singing voices to their Baker and Wife, as proven in their perky “It Takes Two” where they decide they must work together to finally find all the required items (and thus together, to produce a baby).
Kevin Singer’s nervous timidity and flustered indecisiveness make his macho protectiveness of his wife all the starker and sillier. She is the steadying force of the two, who knows the practicalities it takes to succeed in these woods. “What matters is that everyone tells tiny lies … What’s important, really, is the size,” she sings in “Maybe They’re Magic.”
Melissa Wolfklain expresses Sondheim’s clever and often near-confusing lyrics convincingly and clearly with a voice that at one moment is whimsical, at another hauntingly searching, and at another joyfully soaring. She particularly is stunning in her Act Two solo “Moments in the Woods” when she reflects on a happenstance, princely tryst amongst the trees, pondering the wonder that can be found in the woods (and in life) if we sometimes look for the “and” and not just the “or.”
The nemesis of the Baker and Wife is a long, stringy haired, and masked Witch dressed in rags hanging like spider webs who speaks in squeaks and screams as she makes her demands on the two. Jennifer Boesing is a wicked witch through and through; but her heart and her own longings and regrets become more and more clear in each of her increasingly emotional, haunting solos: “Stay with Me,” “Lament,” and “Last Midnight.”
But these are just three of a cast who each has their own well-served moments of melodic and acting spotlight. Celeste Kamiya is a Little Red Ridinghood of much spunk and spirit who continuously displays a fabulous combination of curiosity, impetuousness, and stubbornness along with a sure-fired ability to express in song a wide range of both child-like and older-than-her-young-years emotions. In her “I Know Things Now,” she sings with both tingle and trepidation after her encounter with the Wolf, “Isn’t it nice to know a lot … And a little bit not.”
As the fur-wearing Wolf with a puppet-controlled, tongue-wagging head separate from their body, Roy Eikleberry (who uses the pronouns they/them) drips oily yet alluring notes in their evil, yet funny temptations of Red in their duet, “Hello, Little Girl.” Later, they also deliciously play a caricature of a snide, snotty Prince’s Steward who so wants to be all-important but definitely does not want to stick around for a Giant’s wrath on the kingdom.
As Jack, Chachi Delgado in face and voice shines with the sense of wonder and adventure of a teenage boy, singing with a voice that breaks and quivers in awe and nervous anticipation in his well-delivered “Giants in the Sky.” With eager relish and also just a bit fear he recounts in breathless succession, “There are big, tall, terrible, awesome, scary, wonderful giants in the sky.” He is quick to show others his acquired-in-the-sky gold-laying goose (another of Prop Master Kevin Stanford’s choices of a kid’s toy put to good use) or his alive, all clothed in gold Harp. However, Jack’s true love is his cow, Milky White, played by Luke Hichman while riding on a white bike with the cow’s large head of bulgy eyes and lapping tongue serving like a headlight. Eiko Yamamoto is Jack’s worried and prodding mother who brings her own winning voice that has the ability to pierce through the air with electrifying presence.
Jane Harrington, Amy Zanco, and Gwen Tessman bring much guffawing hilarity to the roles of Cinderella’s Stepmother and stepsisters, Florinda and Lucinda. Their hapless attempts of fitting into the golden slipper send toes a flying. Once blinded by pigeons, the latter two in their sprawling gowns and dark glasses and canes are particularly funny as they traipse about like two of the three blind mice.
As airheads with huge egos seeking romance, the Princes of Rapunzel and Cinderella, Christopher Sotelo and Phillip Harris prance and preen about while they salute each other as ‘bros.’ In both acts, they evoke rounds of laughter from the audience as they exaggerate in great, sung aplomb, “Agony.”
Samantha Rose Cárdenas is the wide-eyed, youthful, and beautifully voiced Cinderella who perhaps undergoes the greatest of change and maturing after her own various ventures into the woods. With melodic clarity, she sings with the Baker in “No One Is Alone” their mutual realization that ever-after happy is not always the outcome of life: “Witches can be right; giants can be good; you decide what’s right; you decide what’s good.”
Showing up time and again to give a clueless, often lost Baker hints how to find his needed items is a long-haired, bent-in-age Mysterious Man (Sean O’Brien). After a world of woe has filled the woods, the two sing a moving, memorable “No More” about legacies left and lost, father to son.
With twisting, turning storylines and Sondheim lyrics characteristically complex and unexpected, Into the Woods has many discoveries to be found, even for audience members who have ventured into these forests many times. And however happy the “Ever After” is at the end of Act One’s grand finale as it is preformed exuberantly by the full cast, we and they soon learn that even in these woods, disappointed dreams, infidelity, deceit, death, and, of course, giants lurk in the shadows.
Put it all together, The Mountain Play’s 2023 gloriously performed Into the Woods is a journey up Mount Tamalpais that is well worth taking to remind ourselves of the magic, mystery, and misery that makes up this thing we call life.
Rating: 5 E, MUST-SEE
Into the Woods continues May 28 and June 4, 10, 11, 18 in production by The Mountain Play at the Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre in Mount Tamalpais State Park, Marin County, California. Information concerning the journey to and from the site as well as tickets is available online at https://www.mountainplay.org .
Photo Credits: Ed Smith