KU Theatre's 'Into the Woods' enchanting
"Cinderella," "Jack and the Beanstalk," "Little Red Riding Hood," and "Rapunzel" come to life in a whole new way on the Crafton-Preyer stage at Kansas University in "Into the Woods." The 1987 musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Lapine ties together several famous fairy tales in enchanting fashion.
Principal to the plot are a Baker (Joseph Carr) and a Witch (Julia Geiser). The Witch is the one whose garden Rapunzel's (Lacey Eaton) father stole from. She took his daughter and placed a curse on his family so the Baker (Rapunzel's brother) and his wife (Shannon Buhler) can't have a child. However, she agrees to lift it if they can gather Red Riding Hood's (Jaclyn Nischbach) cloak, Jack's (Alexander Goering) cow, and Cinderella's (Sofia Belhauari) slipper.
All of these characters and several others move through a magical woods, encountering each other and ultimately fulfilling the Witch's demands.
The first act follows the tales largely as we know them. In the second act, Lapine focuses on the consequences of getting what we want. What happens when you'll do anything to have a baby? When you steal from a giant? When you marry a prince?
The production, exquisitely directed by John Staniunas, is outstanding. Every performance is exceptional. A strong cast of singers brings Sondheim's demanding music delightfully to life.
Each actor shows complete command of their songs, varying from sensitive to powerful exactly when called for.
Furthermore, Lapine's script is a mature work, calling for sophisticated portrayals and an understanding of life's tragedies and triumphs young people sometimes lack the experience to fully comprehend. That's not the case here. Carr and Buhler clearly grasp the complexities of wanting a child so badly and not being able to have one. Both give sensitive performances as people who give into desperation. They are willing to swindle Jack to get the cow they need and to steal some of Rapunzel's hair. The Baker attempts to pilfer Red's cloak but discovers he can't live with himself if he does. It's all honestly and convincingly portrayed.
Likewise, Belhauari's Cinderella is conflicted. She wants so badly to escape the tragedy of her life with her father and step-family, but she just isn't sure she wants this prince. When he betrays her in the second act, she isn't angry with him so much as relieved. She wants a life of her own that she chooses, not, as she puts it, the nightmare of her father's house or the dream of the prince's.
The prince himself, played with panache by Ed Schubel, discovers getting Cinderella isn't enough. He wants constantly to be winning something and can't seem to be satisfied with what he has. Schubel finds a way to make his prince sympathetic to the audience rather than reprehensible.
For young actors to be able to give such sophisticated performances is a testament to their talent and to Staniunas' directorial skill.
The set is gorgeous. Large towers covered in giant, velvet draperies stand in for the trees in the woods, and Staniunas makes good use of the stage’s revolve, frequently turning the trees to convey movement, a change of scenery, and to conceal actors as they enter and exit.
“Into the Woods” is long. The first act runs 90 minutes, and the whole thing is three hours. It suffers from the typical Sondheim maladies of too-wordy lyrics that are sometimes difficult to understand and a-melodic songs that just aren’t catchy.
But the acting, the singing, the direction, and the set design are so strong one doesn’t mind. “Into the Woods” is enchanting, intoxicating, well worth seeing.