Watching actors sing their hearts out only a few feet away from
your seat can be a strange experience. But in a new production of
Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Into the
Woods” by the Oakland University Department of Music, Theater
and Dance, director Karen Sheridan turned a potentially awkward
experience into a delightful one.

“Into the Woods” is a conglomeration of fairy tales
tied by Lapine’s invention of the Baker and his Wife. But
these aren’t tales for children though. Yes, there is a
quest, and all of the well-loved characters make an appearance
— Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Cinderella and Jack (of
Beanstalk fame) — but the writers don’t sanitize the
cruelty and violence of the original stories. Rapunzel is abandoned
in the desert, her Prince is blinded and the eyes of
Cinderella’s stepsisters are plucked out. The world is seen
through shades of gray: People aren’t always good, witches
can be right and “happily ever after” doesn’t
last far beyond Act One. For better or worse, this is a thoroughly
postmodern show, lighthearted though it can be. Adding to the
production, Sondheim’s score is brilliant, both musically and
lyrically.

Perhaps the most noticeable feature of Sheridan’s
production was the space: Rather than the usual proscenium that
frames the action and allows for huge sets, the theater seats
audience members at opposite walls, facing both each other and the
action in the center. The orchestra — which left much to be
desired — plays on the third side, with the entrance and
Rapunzel’s tower comprising the fourth. It’s impossible
to use much scenery without obstructing sight lines in such close
quarters, but designer Kerro Knox 3 created a few outstanding set
pieces. Most notable were the abstract house that rises to surround
the Baker and his Wife and the giant beanstalk that sprouts from
the center of the stage. Also, Sheridan’s skillful direction
could be seen in the actors’ use of space, especially during
the scene where the Wolf devours Little Red.

Few of the actors were singularly excellent, but they were
strong as an ensemble. During the opening-night performance, there
were a few places where the singers were not together with the
orchestra, and there were also frequent sound problems, the most
irritating being mixing imbalances. However, Phill Harmer was
outstanding as the Wolf, as theatrical and lecherous as one could
want him to be, a capacity that resurfaces when he seduces the
Baker’s Wife as the Prince. P. J. Vasquez, Rapunzel’s
Prince, was likewise striking, with a resonant voice and a presence
to match.

Most of the costumes were disappointing, including the
Witch’s mask. The one piece that stood out was the
Wolf’s costume, later worn in a fashion by Little Red, with
gray ’80’s rocker hair.

Overall, the production was engaging, though not without flaws.
It reminds us that although “happily ever after”
doesn’t exist, companionship does.

Fine Arts Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars

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