Eagle Theatre’s INTO THE WOODS – Not Your Usual Fairy Tales

by Jack Shaw

“The forests are not always what they seem in Sondheim’s romantic and brilliant INTO THE WOODS. Weaving everyone’s favorite fairy tales together, this delightful and witty musical conjures up dazzling lyrics, sumptuous melodies and a deliciously wicked plot that begs the question… What happens after happily ever after?”

INTO THE WOODS is a clever and smart musical production. The Eagle has done a fantastic job of creating a fairy tale world on stage highlighted by a terrific set—enormous trees to represent the woods with a tower built into one of them for Rapunzel – the best lighting and sound in South Jersey as well as consistently strong talent. In this re-telling of the fairy tales, complete with a narrator, we learn nothing is as it seems and everything is connected.

INTO THE WOODS, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, opened in San Diego at the Old Globe Theatre in 1986, and premiered on Broadway on November 5, 1987. It won several Tony Awards, including Best Score, Best Book, and Best Actress in a Musical (Joanna Gleason), in a year dominated by THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Extremely successful, the show has had several Broadway and West End revivals, winning additional awards. Expect a film version in 2015.

The Eagle Theatre production, as always, enjoys success on stage, effectively using the creative talents of everyone involved, from the extraordinary Hobbit-like set to puppetry and shadows to represent other characters. A huge shadow represented the giant—a New York Giant, at that. (You’ll get it later.) Lighting and sound is always right on.

While the ensemble was terrific as a whole, I did have some favorites. I especially liked the Baker’s Wife, Maggie Griffin-Smith and Jeff Reim, who played her husband, The Baker. Ironically, the first actor to catch my attention had not “uddered” a word yet. Sean Elias played Milky White, totally engaging his audience with his tongue in cheek performance, obeying Jack, his dullard master, played by Will Connell, who leads him around lovingly as a pet. Connell and Elias prove to be a great comedic pair. Both are versatile performers with extraordinary singing abilities. Jordan O’Brien’s (Little Red Riding Hood) childish innocence and bounce provided lively comedic entertainment as well. The Witch, spellbindingly played by Cindy Chait, who performed with a great flourish in Act I, was best in Act II, which contained her best songs. Opening night starred understudy Tom Craig as Cinderella’s Prince and The Wolf. Giving each character a different persona, he and the other Prince, Sean Elias, performed, “Agony” as a Brother Act.

There were wonderfully creative bits and songs that revealed everyone’s talent. Bravo to all of you. Tom Abruzzo’s flawless music served the actors with great support as well. If I have any complaint at all, it would be with the Giant whose voice was not nearly as booming as was her traipsing around with huge sound and explosive lighting effects to make her presence known.

Will Connell as Jack in The Eagle Theatre’s production of INTO THE WOODS. (Photo credit: Chris Miller)

The woods, the castle and village are special places where Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack of Beanstalk fame and Little Red Riding Hood reside. However, the woods are a dangerous place. Princes seek young damsels to charm and ravish, while wolves roam the woods, seeking humans to devour. The witch curses the Baker and his wife (who live in the woods) to be childless unless they bring to her hair yellow as corn, a cape red as blood, a white cow and a slipper of gold. The original Cinderella receives a dress from the ghost of her mother and wears gold, not glass, slippers. (Actually, they are more like pumps. Who wears slippers to a ball?) Her prince is superficially charming. Outside of these woods is the real world.

SPOILER ALERT. From here on out you’ll read what I think it’s all about. Stop reading if you want to find out for yourself. Sometimes I can’t help myself.

Fairy tales explore the relationships of parents and children—both positive and negative. We are inexplicably and inextricably bound to one another, and the young are very susceptible. These fairytales are not the ones we read our children, but the more violent and negative view of society based on medieval folk tales assembled by the Brothers Grimm.

INTO THE WOODS is also about morality and responsibility to the community. As in Arthur Miller’s CREATION OF THE WORLD AND OTHER BUSINESS, where Lucifer is the voice of reason and God of emotion, the witch in INTO THE WOODS admits who she is. “I’m not nice, I’m not good. I’m right.” However, it turns out she is right about many things, although she is responsible for the entanglement of the bad things that happen from the very beginning. We all know witches are bad; witches are evil. But “the devil (or in this case, the witch) made me do it” isn’t cute or funny.

Even dreams aren’t sacrosanct. Living “happily ever after” is nearly impossible and as significant as “once upon a time.” Life does not have a happily ever after in reality, but a series of ups-and-downs—alternating periods of good and bad fortune. And, if we are responsible—we can work through the bad times. INTO THE WOODS tells us to be careful what we wish for, and that what we say and do to our children has consequences. But, we already knew that, didn’t we?

INTO THE WOODS is an ingenious re-telling of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, complete with all of the violence found in the original tales and the sumptuous music of Stephen Sondheim. The Eagle Theatre’s production is definitely worth seeing. Recommended for all adults and children who no longer believe in fairy tales, the Brothers Grimm fairy tale collection reflects a different time and a sterner morality. It is said that to know what’s good, we must know evil; what’s not scary and not scary, etc. Red Riding Hood learns the difference between “nice” and “good.” Perhaps, that is the purpose of these tales.

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Lapine
Directed by Ed Corsi
November 7 – December 6, 2014
Eagle Theatre
208 Vine Street
Hammonton, NJ 08037

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