We live in the woods. Thirty plus acres of Appalachian oak-hickory forest surround our cabin, garden, and pocket fields for the goats. Beyond that are thousands of acres of other parcels, some with cabins, some with farms. Ribbons of roads, paved and gravel or less, tie the woods together and connect us with civilization. As I wrote recently, in “Murder in the Barnyard”, while many people view country life as a peaceful Garden of Eden, living in the woods can be harsh with periods of toil.
In parallel, some theatre goers prefer musicals to pick up some cheery tunes and to be dazzled by some great legs during the dance numbers. However, if you have ever attended a Stephen Sondheim musical, you know that he twists his characters around the complications of modern life with sung-dialogue that gives you just enough melodic choruses to walk away with. Such is Into the Woods, his fair-tail with the Once-Upon-A-Time and After-The-Happily-Every-After themes. The McCoy Grand Theatre group has just finished a run of Sondheim’s show, leading us into a shadowy forest.
To guide us Into Into The Woods, The Narrator (Derek Barr) introduces various characters from Little Red Ridinghood (Aimee Conley) to the Baker (Adam Leatherman) and his Wife (Bailey Coleman) to Cinderella (Zoe Lay) with her Stepmother (Betty Stickley) and jealous sisters (Muryssa George, Stephanie Beck Roth), a Witch (Sara Widder), and more Brother’s Grimm to Disney renditions of Charming Princes ( Lucus Orndorff, Justice Sifford), maidens (Heather Foster, Carly Kesner, Victoria Honsrote), Jack (Isaac Cardot) with his cow and beans and common folks, a wolf and spirits ( Sandie Eltringham, Aimee Cardot, Brett Reel, Faye Sherman, and Talon Gilbert) Yes, that is a lot of characters on stage throughout the evening. I will not even try to explain how they all get connected.
We can just say that each sets out according this her or his storyline, which leads them into the woods. You could take this as a grand, six-degrees-of-separation joke about how we (as are the characters) intertwined in our journeys and fates. This gets played out near the end of the evening, as everyone points fingers at someone else for his or her dilemma. Fairytale characters do not take responsibility for what they do, nor for the consequences of their blunders. Some even justify their behavior as just being themselves, as when Prince Charming abandon’s Cinderella to pursue Sleeping Beauty with, “I was raised to be charming, not sincere”. If only our leaders were so insightful about their personalities and decision making… oh, wait, Donald Trump has just about said recently…
Back to the musical. The McCoy Grand Theatre group was ambitious to bring Sondheim to the stage in Moorefield, WV. For an audience that may have little background in Broadway musical traditions, to understand where Sondheim’s work fits into the progression of musical styles can be a path lost in the woods. Unlike pastoral Oklahoma style musicals of the 1950’s to 1960’s, Into the Woods lacks the soaring melodies that reverberate in your head. Unlike the social drama Fiddler on the Roof style musicals of the 1970’s to 1980’s, Into the Woods lacks the sense of connection with our lives. Unlike the grand-chorus driven Les Mis style musicals of the 1980’s to 1990’s, Into the Woods is not forgiving to performers who step up with dedication and passion, without the years of training that a Sondheim musical demands of its cast.
We did recognize a number of regular cast members, who’s prior productions showed in their performances. Sarah Widder returned to accost us with her evil-witch voice which transformed into a glorious, but dominating mother tone after the curse was broken. Betty Stickley, Muryssa George, and Stephanie Beck Roth teamed up as Ciderella’s step-mother and step-sisters in a most vengeful and revenged manner (loved those sun glasses). Cati Smith baffled us with doing her work as the Giant’s Wife behind a microphone, while we waited all evening to figure out how she would surprise us with some creative way to be large on stage (though she did surprise us as we met her in the lobby after the show as she descended from her perch in the balcony).
Several new performers stepped on stage with Into the Woods. Aimee Conley’s LIttle Red Ridinghood skipped along the path to Grandma’s house in the woods, while Brett Reel’s dapper wolf-eyes shifted this way and that looking for a quick meal. Zoe Lay’s shy demeanor caught our attention before Lucus Orndorff’s Prince Charming decided to woo her in the woods. Justice Sifford’s Prince seems much more sincere in his persistence to free Heather Foster’s Rapunzel from her lonesome singing in her tower… at least until he too abandon’s her for another love.
The two most humble roles, of the Baker and his Wife, came off as the most human of those on stage. Their dilemma rises above the other’s character’s naivety and self-absorption: what price will they pay to bear a child? The price the pay goes beyond a broken heart: will they risk repeating the failures of their parents? In a cast of fairy-tale characters, they come off as the most human and compassionate. as their introspective duets and solos demonstrated.
Fairy-tales are about children in the dangerous world of adults. Some succeed or fail by their own desirable or flawed characteristics. Others are at the whim of those with power or magic. A number of the songs in Into the Woods are about themes of children and parents. Thus, theme of maturation are woven throughout the play.
In a subtle way, the McCoy Grand Theatre group demonstrates this process by bringing in new members and giving regular members additional responsibilities. Some of the cast and crew we have watched throughout their teen years. They are now in and out of college and other transitions to adult roles. Specifically, for this production, Sarah Widder, whom we have see on stage several times, took on the responsibility of directing the play. I’m sure that stepping into that new role felt like a journey into the woods.