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Photograph by David Allen

Happy Agony: Princes Patrick Leveque (left) and Michael Hunsaker raise their arms in song for 'Into the Woods.'

Fairy-Tale Finery

TheatreWorks ventures deep 'Into the Woods'

By Marianne Messina

THEATREWORKS has come up with a high-impact production of the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical Into the Woods. When the giant stomps, the sound reverberates, things fall over or shake and loosened snow tumbles from above. When the delightfully nasty witch (Thursday Farrar) zaps her victims, her crooked staff lights up an eerie green, while loud, explosive air jets shoot from the floor to strike their nether parts. The narrator of this multitale weave (Frances Jue in motley) appears as if on the branches of large-limbed trees climbing either side of the stage (though he's actually in a window in the wall). And occasionally the trees twinkle with small lights.

Into the Woods launches four quest tales right away. In the foreground, three stage zones—round-edged cottage or hearth or kitchen—stage the stories of beanstalk Jack (Robert Brewer) and his Mom (Maureen McVerry), Cinderella (Cristin Boyle) and her wicked stepfamily and a baker and his wife (Jackson Davis and Christiane Noll). The bakers are dragged into the tale by Red Riding Hood, who begs, gobbles or steals everything on the bakery shelf to stuff her basket for Grandma.

Behind these bright cottage settings we can just glimpse the dark woods, several scrims deep of bare, entangled trees (J.B. Wilson, scenic design). And as the characters follow their quests into the woods, we see a dark sky and a moon barely peeking through the trees like a prisoner behind bars. Each character's different path through the loss, sacrifice, ethical questions, chaos and, of course, fears to be faced make this woods the perfect setup for Sondheim's great talent, melodic voices that go in distinct but overlapping directions, building into the crescendo of near-noise that is the human choir.

Though the musical is known for starting out funny and turning "dark," it seems that most of the actual darkness comes in the first act with the lopping off of toes (to fit feet into Cinderella's gold slipper) and disemboweling of wolves (to release grandma and Ms. Hood—played as quite the delicious little hood by Courtney Stokes). Somehow all the fairy tales manage to wind up "happily ever after"—and that's just the end of Act 1. Act 2 then becomes the grownup tale, where happily-ever-after grows into the real work of life. (Granted, a perpetual romance addict may call this very dark indeed.) But make no mistake, the tone changes.

In the first act, Farrar sings to the escaped Rapunzel (her daughter, whom she has locked in a tower—Tielle Baker), "Stay with me; the world is dark and wild," pleading for Rapunzel to return to the tower where she can be safe. And from this point (in which Farrar is daunting), the hilarious beginnings of the story turn to more poignant overtones. Though for my taste, the later songs visit similar themes to the point of overkill, this is a show that—if you're at all human—will clear out the tear ducts at some point on its journey, partly thanks to great singing across the board.

Still, a couple of characters single themselves out. Bill Olson operating Milky White, Jack's cow, from inside an adorable cow suit is one of them. And James Monroe Iglehart as the Big Bad Wolf is another in his fur and purple rubber suit. You can just tell the erstwhile Sweeney Todd eats this role up.

Into the Woods, a TheatreWorks production, plays Tuesday at 7:30pm, Wednesday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2 and/or 8pm and Sunday at 2 and/or 7pm through Jan. 7 (no performances Dec. 24-25, 27 and Jan. 3) at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Rd., Palo Alto. Tickets are $20-$54. (650.903.6500)

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From the December 7-13, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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