CEDAR CITY — I have four kids; my oldest is nine. It’s safe to say that I’ve watched my fair share of children’s television in my lifetime, and I have come to admire and truly appreciate the writers in that genre that not only appeal to the munchkins at home, but also to their parents. Sesame Street, for instance, is brilliant in their parodies of popular sitcoms and reality shows; their puppet impersonations of celebrities are especially clever. As for Into The Woods, now playing at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, there is a similar appeal to a grown-up audience through a collection of childish characters. You might even learn things you “never knew before.”
I am fascinated by the text and themes of Into the Woods. James Lapine used familiar fairy tales in such a creative way, weaving the characters’ wishes and lives together. The transformative element in this play is the forest (or woods), which is present in so many children’s tales. As the characters travel through these woods, Lapine illustrates some grey areas of morality: nice versus good, the size of lies, heroics, and the ends justifying the means. There is a great deal of substance in the script, and thankfully, it is also generously peppered with comedy.
The bulk of my laughter during the production was triggered by Deanna Ott as Little Red Riding Hood and Peter Saide as Cinderella’s Prince. Ott convincingly portrayed a sassy and determined child, and I was impressed by the nuance in her lines. She had awesome comedic timing (speaking through a mouth full of cookies was a nice touch). There is a line before she goes into Grandmother’s house, which she delivered entirely flat; “Oh dear,” she stated, “How uneasy I feel.” It was hilarious. Peter Saide’s Prince was funny in an entirely different way: he was the epitome of a pompous and perfect fictional prince. Every entrance and exit, his posture, his facial expressions, and the stereotypical speech pattern of the exceedingly rich—he was ideal. Kyle Eberlein was a delight, as well, as Rapunzel’s Prince; they both stole the show in the repeated song “Agony,” as both actors overdid every moment.
Brian Vaughn was very qualified for the lead role as The Baker. A talented actor, Vaughn drew me in with his likeability and expressiveness. I was so please with the growth he showed in the character, and his increasing fatigue as he gathered each of the witch’s requested items. Once the Baker gives up, defeated, he has a scene with his father, where he sings, “Can’t we just pursue our lives with our children and our wives?” Vaughn had real tears and so did I; it was satisfying and very human. Vaughn had a terrific partner in Melinda Pfundstein, who is his actual and stage wife; they were very in sync with each other. I liked the scene when The Baker was trying to get Jack (James Sanders) to sell him his cow because of the humorous way Pfundstein would whisper to Vaughn what to say and he’d repeat it.
The costumes in this show were delicious, as I have come to expect from the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s costume department; the designs in this case were by Bill Black. The Baker’s wife, for example, wears a dress that fits her “peasant” station in life, but is comprised of so many fabrics and patterns. There are ribbons, lace, stripes, flowers—I wish I could adequately describe it, because it was a true work of art. I liked the use of those giant poofy sleeves or pantaloons on many of the characters. The Wolf’s mask, however, I did not like; I didn’t care for any part of the Wolf’s costume, honestly, especially the random addition of a codpiece.
All hairstyles and wigs were fitting to the characters. I liked Jack’s ginger bob because it differentiated him from a generic looking kid. Other wig highlights belong to Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters. I appreciated the storybook drawing style of the set, as well, which was designed by Hugh Landwehr. Sound designer Joe Payne’s cracking/falling trees and thundering giant steps added a strong visual image to those already described.
Jeremy Mann directed the show and created some great scenes. When the stepmother is fitting the golden slipper onto her daughters’ feet, she makes a sawing motion as she cuts off one daughter’s toe and the other daughter’s heel. I knew, of course, that this violence was faked, but the characters were arranged in such a way, and the moment orchestrated so well that I could barely look. Mann utilized all of his theater space, up and down, including the aisles and balcony. During the sweet scene when Cinderella sings, “No one is alone,” Mann had placed The Baker and Jack in a tall tree upstage left, while Cinderella and Little Red sat at the edge of the stage on the opposite side. Having two or three small groups of characters was a common occurrence in this production, a blocking strategy that clarified which characters had common goals. Mann’s choices felt logical and effective throughout, with two exceptions. The first was the portrayal of The Wolf, whose role is to tempt Little Red Riding Hood away from the safe path. This Wolf, though, was just too weird and creepy to invite anyone’s confidence, and Little Red barely acknowledged his presence. I received the message that The Wolf is a predator, and that Red was a naive child, but the scene didn’t gel with me. The second odd moment came when the prince’s steward (Jason Michael Spelbring) “kills” Jack’s mom (Bree Murphy). Spelbring hits Murphy in the head with his scepter, after which she remains standing, even after she dies.
Stephen Sondheim’s score is striking and complex. Most songs are teeming with lyrics upon lyrics, and the melodies are challenging to master. But music director Michael Gribbin and the talented cast rarely stumbled. Tina Scariano, as Cinderella, soared through the poignant “No One is Alone,” and Misty Cotton conquered the jam-packed tale of the Witch’s curse. “Into the Woods” and “Your Fault” were done so well by the multiple characters involved in each. At the end, when the cast sings together, “Sometimes people leave you halfway through The Wood…” I was moved by the powerful delivery. There were too many amazing musical moments to name here.
Into The Woods has everything I could ask for in a storyline, and the production currently housed in Cedar City is full of major talent. It was well worth the effort to “go to the festival,” because it felt good to laugh and cry in one of my favorite places.