After Happily Ever After

It's a good time to be a Stephen Sondheim fan. Recent years have seen a surge of interest in his work, including Broadway revivals of Assassins, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, and Company, which is still running. The highly acclaimed City Center Encores! version of Follies has spurred talk of a full-fledged revival, while a London production of Sunday in the Park With George is about to make its way across the pond. Even more highly anticipated is the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp film version of Todd, which will be released later this year. Sondheim even appeared on The Simpsons this season. Yes, it's a good time to be a Sondheim fan, but then again, isn't it always?

It should really come as no surprise, then, that I am writing about a Sondheim musical: Center Stage Community Playhouse's Into the Woods. The prospect of seeing another version of this venerable staple of high school and amateur theaters might not sound like the most promising night out, but Center Stage's version breathes enough fresh life into this 20-year-old chestnut to make it worth revisiting.

Under the revelatory direction of George Croom, Into the Woods crackles with the frenzied chaos that one expects might happen if you combine a dozen or so fairy tales and mix well. James Lapine's book takes the stories of Cinderella, Jack (of beanstalk fame), and the apocryphal Baker and his Wife and scrambles them, overlapping characters, sharing plot points, and the like. Also along for the ride are Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, and a host of others. The first act ends with the story resolved as we know it: the Giant dead, the Witch defeated, Cinderella married to her prince, etc. The second act, however, shows what happens after happily ever after.

While this sounds like the perfect show to take the kids to (and it is), there is plenty of sex and violence for the grown-ups. The play retains some of the Grimm Brothers' gruesome details (just how desperate were the ugly stepsisters to make the shoe fit?), and the final body count is surprisingly high. The lascivious Prince (the hysterically louche Nick Sattinger) is double-cast with the Wolf, highlighting their similarly voracious appetites. In a classic line, the bed-hopping Prince confesses that he was raised to be charming, not sincere.

Morality in these fairy tales is at the heart of Into the Woods. Sondheim's lyrics contain such quotable aphorisms as "nice is different than good" and "wishes come true, not free." Nothing is black and white, though, as the characters become far more complex than either the Grimms or Walt Disney ever imagined. In the song "Moments in the Woods," the Baker's Wife (the heartbreaking Lara Buck) comes to terms with the way the forest has brought her pleasure and pain, happiness and hypocrisy, love and infidelity. She learns all too well what Shakespeare and countless others have told us: crazy things happen when characters go into those woods.

There are indeed very dark places in that forest, but this is countered by a generous helping of Sondheim's trademark bounce and wit. Fortunately, Center Stage's production is fittingly bouncy and witty. Despite the modest space at Foster Hall (originally a detached chapel on the grounds of St. Peter's Episcopal Church), Croom's staging is full of zip. The pace rarely lags, and the fairy tale fantasy creates opportunities for ingenious meta-theatrical flourishes. These are mostly found in the person of Robert "Ben" Tylka, a true standout in the double role of the Narrator and Mysterious Man. Tylka's Narrator is one part Our Town's Stage Manager, one part Cabaret's Emcee, bringing both authority and mischief to the role.

Peter Mussared's costumes are dazzling, and Jason Bolen's set creates magic, allowing for a dizzying range of entrances and exits, and a few surprising hiding places. A small number of spectators are seated on the stage, which the actors have plenty of fun with. One is never quite sure where a character will pop up next.

Musical director Kurt Kelley has crafted a tight ensemble out of a large cast of mostly nonprofessionals, featuring a number of capable soloists. At the preview I attended, the wireless microphones were temperamental, as they often are. Even though Foster Hall is small, one does not envy the singers in their task of conquering the space's awkward acoustics. The cast certainly does the best with what it has.

In the end, Center Stage has created something it should be proud of. Over the years, I have seen umpteen productions of Into the Woods, and was even in one once upon a time. That the play can still become fresh and alive to me is quite an accomplishment.

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