Singing in the Woods: Sondheim Upstate

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Kendyl Ito as Little Red Riding Hood in the REV Theatre production of Into the Woods. Photo: Ron Heerkens Jr. Photography / Goat Factory Media.

Strange songs haunt the fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm and first published in 1812 in Berlin.

“Old Hildebrand,” a story of a parson’s attempt to seduce a peasant’s wife, ends with a rousing (arousing?) quartet that has the crude makings of Mozart/Da Ponte finale delivered in doggerel. The hijinks conclude with the peasant, eavesdropping from his hiding place beneath a blanket in a cart pushed into earshot by a woodsman, renounce song itself because he’s just overheard his wife and the parson in duet under his own roof. After belting out his anti-aria, the peasant jumps from the cart and beats the parson silly, driving him from hearth, home and wife.

The Grimm’s more famous “Hansel and Gretel” closes with a brutal little chorus, the endemic violence of the story exacted in the end on the smallest of creatures:

Sing everyone,
My story is done.
And look round the house
There runs a little mouse.
He that can catch her before she scampers in
May make himself a fur-cap out of her skin.

That’s one tiny fur cap, and the (psycho)analysist might well ask what part of the body the micro-garment is meant to cover. The gendered play of the couplets (somewhat promiscuously translated from the German by “Mrs. Edgar Lucas” in the classic English edition of 1900) imagines a male flaying a defenseless female animal. Like so many of these tales, the lyric is simultaneously naively light and profoundly dark. Most unsettling of all, kids seem to love the the weirdness, the gore, the arbitrariness, the othering—all of it at odds with the lessons we are now meant to teach them.

Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods, now in the midst of a three-week run that extends until July 25th at the REV Theatre in the city of Auburn in central New York State, makes do without the most famous fairytale brother-and-sister duo (and that unfortunate mouse), drafting instead a posse of unlikely, not-so-super-heroes and baddies from the Grimms. But the show’s brilliant songs, their sometimes smooth, sometimes gnarled, melodies and endlessly imaginative lyrics both supplied by Sondheim, murmur and shout with those fairy tales’ uncanny oddness.

Unlike the Marvel’s Avengers, the Grimms’ action figures are long out of copyright: Rapunzel, Cinderella, Jack, Little Red Riding Hood. Sondheim and his trusted collaborator James Lapine, who wrote the musical’s book and directed the original 1986 production, send this fabled crew into a shadowy forest in search of melodic therapy and misadventure and ultimately towards the fulfillment required of melodrama: the creation of family and safety.

Lapine and Sondheim send this familiar bunch into eccentric narrative orbit around a newly-invented ersatz Germanic couple—a childless baker and his wife who must go in search of four objects in the fairytale forest: a milk-white cow (the one Jack sells for those beans); a shock of golden hair (Rapunzel’s); a golden slipper (Cinderella’s); a cape that is red (belonging to that girl not from the hood but wearing one). Once these are presented to the evil witch, the curse will be lifted and the couple can at last have their baby.

These plot threads are tied up tightly in the self-contained first act. But that premature happy ending is troubled after intermission when the Giant’s Wife, heard not seen, comes stomping through the kingdom in search of justice and the husband-killing, golden-goose-stealing Jack. The second act extends the evening to the requisite length, darkening and complicating the plot and character—and, most important, yielding more Sondheim songs.

Sondheim and Lapine’s fairytale dream team is the stuff of nightmares. The Grimms would have approved. The slipper is a Procrustean implement that exacts toes and bunions from ugly stepsisters; golden tresses are torn from a tender scalp up on the ramparts; the cow has a coronary; the cape is the color of blood. More troubling still, without these overdetermined accoutrements the fairytales cannot function, the stories self-destruct if the childless couple is to succeed in establishing their multi-generational family. Yet this clever gambit also allows, indeed forces, the characters to escape the shackles of their defining props and become real, their human emotions expressed in song. Put another way, the archetypes become accessible, the mythic figures emerge from the repressed German forests and into the groves of modern feeling.

To get to these fantastical interior woods, audiences must journey to a graceful rotunda set in a Jazz Age pleasure garden that also boasts a columned pavilion and broad lawns sweeping down to a swimming area at the north end of pristine Lake Owasco just south of Auburn, NY. Other attractions of this charming city and environs include the Harriet Tubman House and William Seward Mansion. That Civil War Secretary of State’s eponymous Folly (Seward signed the deal with Russia to buy Alaska for $7 million in 1867) is not perhaps as theatrical and leggy as that of Ziegfeld, though there is rich potential in local history for a homegrown REV musical (see below).

The whole REV package captivates, not just the cast and orchestra, but the retrofitted theater that originally housed the Merry-Go-Round that now gives the playhouse its name. The carved horses are gone but the sense of play and possibility linger. The grounds entice whether under the fading blue sky of a perfect summer evening or on an afternoon matinee heavy with the threat of thunderstorms—all beautiful to the eye and lifting of the spirit, refreshment in the air and the water if one ventures a quick intermission swim. Upstate’s most spacious, gracious Musical Park is a long way from the crowded stone and brick canyons of New York City’s theater district. That woods and fields and waters are not so far from this In the Woods adds to the restorative allure, as it does to all the shows mounted here. Now in its 65th summer season, REV is anything but provincial even as it draws its grace from the place and the people.

The people on, beneath, and behind the stage are a mix of national and regional talent, consistently compelling and admirably varied. Up from Broadway were Aaron Galligan-Stierle and Lindsay Nicole Chambers who played the Baker and his Wife. Each imbued their respective parts with just the right dose of yearning and worry leavened by comic flair. Their performances were demonstrative but not overdone, sympathetic but not sentimental. That’s a tricky balancing act when the music and action can so easily tip towards schmaltz. Their opening duet, “Maybe They’re Magic” is an ends-justify-the-means patter song, delivered first by the wife with her biological clock tick-tocking at a presto clip, then by the careworn husband. At the REV it was funny and sad and very Sondheim.

A compact pit orchestra of seven was led by Ithaca College professor and long-time REV music director Jeff Theiss with a deft precision that still allowed enough freedom to his singers for nuanced spontaneity. The ensemble of local, world-class musicians gave color and texture to Sondheim’s rich harmonies, now lush, now piquant. It is from these chordal hues that the composer-lyricist claimed to derive his melodies. These tend to circle around or cling to clustered pitches before breaking their restraints in emotionally charged leaps like those that animate the phrase endings of the Baker and his Wife’s second duet, “It Takes Two.” This comes later in the first act when the husband, having previously ordered his wife to return home finally agrees that the pair should seek the curse-lifting objects together. The song’s desperate leap down the octave at “open-hearted” is a tried-and-true Sondheim move sung in turn first by Chambers then Galligan-Stierle with a technical surety that nonetheless conveyed a sense of venturing into the unknown—not just of the forest but of feeling.

Also from nearby, rising senior at Ithaca College Dexter Conlin was a handsome, endearingly thick-headed Jack, gullible and just goofy enough to court chaos without being squashed by it. His farewell to his beloved cow, “I Guess this is Goodbye” imbued the quick syllables and turning melody with an affecting, resonant lyricism that was shot through with pangs of sadness in another of those Sondheimian leaps. His voice was sure-footed in the jagged, perilous descent in “Giants in the Sky,” sounding danger with a guileless heroism.

Into the Woods counts as late Sondheim, and the horrors of childhood have a way of bubbling up, as they do in the original fairy tales. His was not a happy youth, his mother a terror from whom he remained estranged in his adulthood. One doesn’t have to listen hard to hear that trauma in these woods, as in Jack’s refusal of Red Riding Hood’s offer to look after him—“I don’t need a mother. I need a friend.” More poignant is the family romance confronted by Cinderella. The abused orphan raised to royalty has left all that behind, and sings (ventriloquizing Sondheim, one could easily think) the pentatonic lullaby “No One is Alone” to the Baker’s baby cradled in her arms:

Mother cannot guide you
Now you’re on your own
Only me beside you
Still, you’re not alone

Caelie Scott Flanagan sang the number with a careworn pathos tinged by the untainted wonder of the ingenue. In this fantasy world danger is always close, not least in the snares of cliché: the opening five-note figure of “No One is Alone” is the same as that of “The Candy Man” from the 1971 movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. This precursor to Sondheim’s lullaby is the tune that gave Sammy Davis Jr. (who apparently thought the song a cloying mess) his only number one hit. It is a matter of taste and, more decisively, of performance whether Sondheim’s treatment of the melody becomes a saccharine sweet reheat or not. Flanagan allowed a hint of bitterness into her pure voice, thus preventing sugar shock.

One fools with classics of the American Musical, as with sacred cows, at one’s peril and there are moments when a 1980s datedness (exacerbated by a certain Grimm-ness) erupts, as when the line “Dwarves are upsetting” is played for laughs. The most potentially offensive number in the REV production was, not surprisingly, its most exuberantly theatrical—the burlesque blues “Hello Little Girl” sung by the pedophile wolf, this one provocatively costumed in leather and fur by Tiffany Howard, all the better to lure Little Red Riding Hood into his lanky, lascivious clutches. The girl was played and sung by the excellent Kendyl Ito with a wide-eyed and true-voiced directness that was funny, quirky, and smart. CJ Eldred was deliciously debauched as the wolf, and after that beast’s demise took on the role of one of the two Prince Charmings (one for Cinderella, one for Rapunzel) with an airy, distracted narcissism.

Like the other characters, Eldred’s darkly clad wolf and white-suited Prince were all the more vivid and varied for the light and scenic designs of José Santiago and Milo Bue respectively: the fearsome girth of a German oak whose limbs took on a suitably human, even monstrous aspect rose to unseen heights above the stage; a pair of stumps advertised the menace of the axe. The balustrade suggested myth and aspiration; the lighting conjured shadows of the unconscious yet let faces and hands shine and shift, fear and sorrow, resolve and relent.

Across and around this stage the telling movements and revealing gestures, the unforeseen intersections and the canny avoidance of the lures of exaggeration should be credited to the expert and imaginative stage direction and production concept of Brett Smock, also the company’s artistic director and driving force who has led nearly a hundred shows at the REV.

Sondheim’s songs are wondrous strange, a musical and theatrical truth embraced by this compelling production that will long echo through the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse and into the woods beyond.

***

My little review/revue is now over, but for those who care to stick around, I offer this Coda free of charge:

As I sat with my theater-going partner at a sidewalk table outside the Osteria Salina on State Street in Auburn before the Saturday night performance of Into the Woods, a sweating Negroni in hand and speaking bad Italian to our Sicilian waiter, I could pick out through the restaurant umbrellas and beyond the sign of the adjacent Prison City Pub and Brewery, the figure of Copper John, erect against the smokey horizon. This musket-and-bayonet-wielding effigy of a Revolutionary War soldier stands atop the State Correctional Facility looming at the north edge of downtown Auburn. Founded in 1816 on penitential principles of solitary confinement and hard labor, the prison is infamous for conducting the world’s first execution by electric chair in 1890. Copper John is getting on for two hundred years old.

This law-and-order stalwart was in the news a couple of decades back when it was discovered, at long last, that the statue was “anatomically correct”—that correctness being aired outside of the soldier’s pale breeches. The Department of Corrections promptly ordered that the figure be rendered decent. Some of the prison staff protested, printing t-shirts that read “Save Copper John’s Johnson,” but to no avail: the offending copper cock was filed off, returning New York State’s highest watchman to decorum.

As I took another sip of that Negroni, I imagined Copper John struck by lightning and jangling to life, clambering down from his perch and marching AWOL through town, intent on tracking down his Manhood like Prince Charming in search of the right foot for that slipper. The madcap frolic ends up at the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse a couple of miles away, the thrills and giggles aided and abetted by a jailbreak chorus-line of inmates pursued by Warden Willy and the Corrections. This musical would traffic in oh-so-clever winks, nods, and nudges at Sondheim’s Assassins (the killer of President McKinley, Leon Czolgosz, a character in that show, was electrocuted at Auburn), not to mention Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Berg’s Wozzek, among other brows, from low to high. The electric chair, too, plays a crucial role in the galvanic Frankensteinian operation that makes Copper John whole again and ready to make love not war …

Dear REV Theatre, we cherish the classic New York City and London imports to Upstate (this year’s Auburn line-up, in addition to Into the Woods, includes A Chorus Line, Evita, and Beautiful). But now’s the time for locally-sourced sustainable stories and songs for a Merry-Go-Round production. Working title of this one: Incorrected.

My people will wait to hear from your people.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com