It's one thing to take a trip into the land of fairy tales, especially the standard Disney versions of those old stories. The journey is pretty easy.
It's quite another when Stephen Sondheim, Broadway's darkly clever composer and lyricist, is your guide. You'll find princes singing about their unattainable women and their unsettling wives and Little Red Riding Hood defending herself with a knife.
Sondheim and book writer James Lapine create such an unusual journey in "Into the Woods," the musical that received a creditable production by a road company Friday night at Hoch Auditorium. The performance was a special event in the Kansas University Concert Series.
THE MUSICAL is built around a set of fairy tales that Sondheim and Lapine interlock in a seamless succession of songs and plot. A baker and his wife are childless. A witch promises to lift the curse of infertility if they aquire four things a cow, a gold shoe, golden hair and a red cape. Thus, the couple is thrown into the stories of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood. The first act ends happily, with everyone getting what they thought they wanted.
But in the second, each action in the first act is shown to have consequences. Princes and their new wives don't live happily ever after; parents find they can't protect their children; a giant comes bent on revenge and destruction; and people die.
Essentially, the show is a romp through current interpretations of folklore and archetypal criticism. The woods are what literary critic Northrop Frye called the Green World away from civilization, people find themselves in unsettling circumstances.
THANKS TO Sondheim's brilliant lyrics, the tone of the first act remains light. When Little Red Riding Hood runs into the wolf, you know the story is really about growing up and awakening sexuality. The obvious is made even more obvious.
Sondheim saves his most sweeping melodies for the second act, with the ballads "No More" and "No One is Alone," which show the characters reconciling themselves to the idea they must take care of themselves and each other. No more witches will come and guide the way.
Of the touring cast, Scott Mikita and Steve Wallem stood out as the two princes, taking melodramatic poses and singing about themselves in "Agony." Scott Calcagno and Jane Blass were affecting as the baker and his wife; Blass had a great second-act number called "Moments in the Woods," which she sings just after an encounter with one of the princes. And Gina Valentine had a big voice as Little Red Riding Hood.
KELLY ELLENWOOD, as the witch, seemed a little strained; she often sounded as if she were imitating Bernadette Peters, who played the part on Broadway. The bare-bones set featured several boxes that opened and closed to show scene changes; they were efficient but not especially well-painted. But the costumes, coordinated by Jeffrey Kelly, looked good, and the four-piece musical ensemble did a great job with what they had. Unfortunately, the cast seemed to have some difficulty with the sound system.
But on the whole "Into the Woods" is a good, moving musical, and the touring company does a professional job of evoking Sondheim's own Green World.