Critic's PickOne of the songs in Into the Woods warns, “Careful the things you say. Children will listen.”
In the case of the current production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s a blender full of fairytales, some familiar and some not, the “children” — that is, CCM’s performers in training — clearly listened well as Aubrey Berg directed them in a remarkably mature and thoroughly entertaining production. (The show marks the 20th anniversary of Patricia Corbett’s endowment of a chair in musical theater, clearly an investment that has earned an excellent return.) The common wisdom about Into the Woods (Mrs. Corbett was an investor in the original Broadway show) is that the first act is full of fun — and at Patricia Corbett Theater it certainly is. Cinderella (Katie Johannigman), clad in rags, is bullied by her domineering mother (Kate McMillan) and her snide sisters (Aubrey Ireland and Catherine Helm), all decked out in pink splendor, including magnificent, character-inspired wigs (the extraordinary work of Kelly Yurko and Kaitlyn Adams). The brightest thing about dim-witted Jack (Josh S. Smith) is his flame-red hair; his fretful mother (Cassie Levine) has little hope that he’ll find a way to improve the family’s finances by selling their cow, Milky White (Joey Dippel, wearing a scene-stealing, four-legged puppet frame with an expressive head). Precocious Little Red Riding Hood (Lawson Young) skips to her grandmother’s house, pursued by a lascivious Wolf (Blaine Krauss). Rapunzel (Lauren Roesner) sings liltingly while preening over her long golden locks.
A Baker and his wife (Chris Blem, Michelle Rombola) yearn for a child, but the bitchy Witch next door (Victoria Cook) tells them it won’t happen unless they bring her several unlikely items that must be found in the woods.
After much searching and frustration — not to mention great music (17 musicians led by conductor Stephen Goers) and vigorous choreography (conceived by Patti James) — the act ends with dreams coming true.But then there’s Act II, when things don’t quite turn out to be “happily ever after.” The princess who courted Cinderella and Rapunzel (John Riddle and Matthew Amira) aren’t perfect. The beans Jack received for Milky White grow a vine to a castle in the sky where his thievery invokes the wrath of a giant and his fearsome wife. Red Riding Hood’s grandmother and Jack’s mother die in the aftermath, the Baker’s wife meets her demise after a dalliance with Cinderella’s prince and the Witch regains her beauty but loses her magical powers. Things are not so perfect as the characters had imagined. Some people find this a downer, but the message conveyed by Sondheim’s songs, Lapine’s book and Berg’s clear direction is that happiness is what you make of it. In fact, we learn that parenting isn’t so easy and that building a coherent community is something that requires everyone to pull together and make some sacrifices for the greater good. There are many children to be raised — some without parents by this point in the story — and the survivors come to have learned that they are all responsible. It’s a lovely, mature lesson. But the show is also a wonderful tangle of tales and humorous characters. Riddle, as Cinderella’s devastatingly handsome (and constantly preening and posing) prince, tells her, “I was raised to be charming, not sincere.” Johannigman plays Cinderella as a bit of a klutz, which makes her all the more endearing. Young, a truly gifted freshman, makes Red Riding Hood a mouthy brat whose fierce exterior belies the little girl inside. The show’s visual inventiveness, especially the intrusions of the Giant’s wife as a gigantic finger and a blinking eyeball, is a constant treat. Into the Woods requires a broadly talented ensemble, and that’s what Berg has assembled. Each performer has a memorable moment. Cook’s snappish Witch and Graydon Long’s Narrator/Mysterious Man keep all the stories spinning. Blem’s Baker is a lovable, deer-in-the-headlights Everyman, egged on by Rombola as his spirited, independent wife, but in the end, his solid, kind spirit pays off.
The woods might sound like a place where people get lost, but CCM’s excellent production proves that it’s actually where the most important things are found. In the words of the closing song, it’s a place “to think, to teach, to join.” What we desire might not actually be what we end up with — and that’s OK. CCM usually presents musicals for only one weekend. Into the Woods is blessed with a longer run, through Sunday. Go see it if you can.
INTO THE WOODS, presented by the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati, continues through Sunday, March 4.