Into the Woods, the Sondheim and Lapine musical inspired by Bruno Bettelheim’s (eminent child psychologist) The Uses of Enchantment, examines, intertwines, revels in and topples numerous popular fairy tales. Arguably not for kids, it goes to the subtext of favorites such as Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, using the story of a childless Baker and his wife to tie them together. Lapine and Sondheim dig into recurring themes like absent fathers, shrewish mothers, sexual experience versus innocence, and so on, with intelligence and sensitivity. They celebrate risking the dangers of rushing into the woods, where illusions are smashed but life skills are acquired.
The touring Fiasco Theatre version of Into the Woods, playing at ATTPAC’s Winspear Opera House, and is bright and lively. They have borrowed from productions like Peter and the Starcatcher and (going back a long time) Godspell in what I call “theatre attic” shows. There’s ostensibly no set, or minimal set, resembling an attic, where various props are pressed into service. A bell to suggest a cow, a stuffed head for The Big Bad Wolf, big ladies hats for drag. In this instance characters are also musicians, taking up the bassoon, piano, cello, tuba. Perhaps it’s the enormous attic of the mind we share, as if we’re all participating in constructing the narrative together. They do a lot with it. And in some ways it feels sublime. The audience seemed to be enjoying it, and song passages given over to the journeys of particular characters (The Witch, Little Red, Cinderella, Jack, The Baker) are complex and poignant.
When you’ve seen a particular piece a number of times you begin to ridiculously feel that it belongs to you. Part of Into the Wood’s charm and miraculous appeal is that it feels like it shouldn’t work. It couldn’t work. But it does. It’s big and busy and digresses and contradicts itself and goes off on tangents, but like a masterful collage by Rauschenberg or Schwitters it coalesces. It’s powerful nearly to the point of intrusion. When done full on, we can only imagine it’s a logistical nightmare. The pragmatic advantages to Fiasco’s concept with its ladders and rope wigs and squirt bottle and megaphone are obvious.
I’m not interested in being cantankerous or surly here, it worked better than reasonably well. But it felt a bit diminished, and there were excisions of content that were hard to ignore. I got the feeling it was supposed to be more kid-friendly, they certainly cheered when The Giant’s Wife bit the dust. How do you explain to them it was necessary to kill her, but certainly nothing to applaud? Which I believe is the point. What Lapine and Sondheim examined when they wrote Into the Woods was the dark, unseemly, adult ideas lurking behind folklore. The motives that might be unclear to children are exposed because some musicals are for grown-ups. You certainly can’t say that a “family version” is nefarious (can you?) but it feels like a shame.
AT&T Performing Arts Center presents Into the Woods, playing May 16th– 28h, 2017 at The Winspear Opera House, 2403 Flora Street, Dallas, Texas 75201. 214-880-0202. www.attpac.org