theatre/dance
September 25, 2009

Into the darkness
by Greg Boyle

Kansas City Repertory Theatre has opened its 2009–2010 season with the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical, Into the Woods. As has become almost standard in this second year of the Eric Rosen era as artistic director, the production isa visual feast. Direction, set, lights, costumes and even puppets combine to create a spectacle that is a delight to the eye. 

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Dana Steingold as Little Red Riding Hood (photo by Don Ipock Photography)

With the set designed by Narelle Sissons, the audience is treated to the sight of a bedroom superimposed over a forest scene, with trees that reach into the flies above the stage. The back of the stage has multiple levels, and you can see a man playing piano at the top. A magnificent chandelier hangs slightly right of center, and there is a pair of ballroom doors upstage, so that in one fell swoop, the audience can see all the locations that will make up the story. In addition, director Moises Kaufman has used every imaginable entrance and exit for the many characters in the play, from the skies to the floor, so the audience is never quite sure where someone might appear.  Japhy Weideman’s moody lighting adds to the sense that anything might happen at any time.

The original 1987 Broadway production starred Bernadette Peters and won Tony Awards for score, book and best actress. The story is a compilation of Grimm Brothers fairy tales, told so that the story lines overlap. We get Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella and a fresh tale about a Baker and his Wife that ties them all together. On the surface, every one of these tales has a similar theme. That is, that the world is a dangerous place, and leaving home and familiar surroundings is scary.

In medieval times, in which these stories have their roots, going into the woods required protection from wild creatures both real and imaginary, and only the bravest attempted it. Stories about the adventures of those who dared, with both good and bad results, are what constitute these fairy tales. On the other hand, as noted in the score, going into the woods is the only thing that can bring change from often dire circumstances. 

However, fairy tales are more than cautionary tales to scare children into obeying and following the rules of society. According to American mythologist Joseph Campbell, they are also parables that teach children about change, sexuality and venturing into the right brain darkness that leads to imagination and originality. That is the reason they have such a hold on children’s psyches. They resonate on a deep level with innermost thoughts and yearnings.

The cast is uniformly outstanding in presence, delivery and voice. The role of the witch in Act I is so juicy that every singing actress would kill for it. Michele Ragusa makes the most of her opportunity. Every gesture and posture is creepy and perfect. Her costume, by Clint Ramos, does a spectacular job of enhancing her every gesture. Other costumes that are almost worth the price of admission are those of Cinderella’s stepsisters, which are deliciously over the top, and the Narrator, who is a ringer for medieval drawings of a man-of-the-forest. Euan Morton, a native Scot, gives us a Ricky Gervais kind of silliness as the Narrator.

Other standouts are Dana Steingold as Little Red Riding Hood, who is a precocious, bratty and very funny preteen, and the two princes, played by Brandon Sollenberger and Claybourne Elder. These guys are the ultimate frat boys of the Middle Ages. Their duet, “Agony,” is hilarious. As a final piece de resistance, local puppet maestro Paul J. Mesner has created barnyard animals that are an unexpected pleasure.

Interestingly enough, each act of this play is a different experience. The first act is about getting what you want. The second act explores the never before asked question of what does “happily ever after” mean, and how long does it last? It ventures into powerful psychological territory. Every action from Act I has repercussions and consequences. Act II presents them to us with a vengeance. This is a powerful play, insightfully conceived and magnificently delivered by the Kansas City Repertory Theatre.

Into the Woods runs through Oct. 4 at the Spencer Theatre on UMKC campus. For tickets, call the box office at 816-235-2700, or go online to www.kcrep.org.

Greg Boyle can be contacted at gbboyle@kc.rr.com.