Human beings are perverse creatures. We spend our lives in frustrating searches to satisfy our never-ending desires. Then when we achieve them, we are rarely satisfied, and our quest begins all over again.
The musical "Into the Woods" captures the complexity of this universal human dilemma, which is what elevates the story above the pedestrian level of many other musicals. Its philosophical magic is currently on display in an enjoyable yet uneven production at the Grand Theatre.
If "Into the Woods" concluded where most fairy tales do at the end of Act I with its stories deftly tied up "happily ever after" it would be easy to dismiss it, in spite of Stephen Sondheim's clever songs and James Lapine's ingenious book that interweaves familiar fairy tales into provocative new patterns. All of the characters' individual quests for friendship, family, romance, and a better life seem satisfied.
But it's in the second act, when the characters must return to the woods the "once upon a time later" that gives the musical its memorable, densely layered structure. Here the characters experience loss and pain, are forced to make choices and interact in ways that challenge and stretch them, and learn to refine their ideas about family and community. As "The Fantasticks," another iconic musical, puts it, "Without a hurt, the heart is hollow."
This idea is celebrated in "No One is Alone," Sondheim's most lyrical song in "Into the Woods": "Sometimes people leave you/ halfway through the woods./ Others may deceive you;/ you decide what's good/ … Do not let it grieve you;/ no one goes for good."
The Grand Theatre production has many assets. The cast members have lovely voices and handle the musical numbers well: the Baker (Jonathan McBride) and his wife (Stephanie Purcell) share new understanding in "It Takes Two"; Jack (Jacob Tonks) describes the difficulty of living between two worlds in "Giants in the Sky"; the Witch (Julie Silvestro Waite) vacillates between parental clutching and concern in "Stay with Me"; Cinderella (Ashley Gardner Carlson) and Red Riding Hood (Angela Chatelain Avila) reach out in compassionate care in "No One Is Alone"; and the two princes (Doug Irey and Jake Miskimins) vent their frustration that "the one thing you want is out of reach" in "Agony," the show's comic high point. Camille Van Wagoner as Jack's mother and Gary Pimentel as the narrator/mysterious man also stand out.
Halee Rasmussen's set of trees silhouetted against different-colored backdrops is alternately mysterious and ominous, depending on the subtle changes in Nicholas Cavallaro's constantly shifting lighting. Amanda Reiser's colorful costumes look like illustrations out of the brothers Grimm. Neil Vanderpool's direction and choreography are crisp and creative in the first act, but the pace lags and gets muddier in Act II.
A major problem, though, is the sound. Either the miking is problematic, or the Grand's cavernous stage is swallowing syllables, or both. On too many occasions, you can't distinguish the words of the songs, and sometimes you can barely hear the singers. Since this show relies almost completely on the music to carry it, that becomes a real issue.
In spite of this drawback, this production manages to make connections with its audience. That communication will become deeper if the sound issues can be resolved over the course of the run.
Beyond happily ever after
Strong performances by a well-matched ensemble can't quite compensate for sound problems in Grand Theatre's production of the musical "Into the Woods."
When • Reviewed Friday, Oct. 12; plays through Saturday, Oct. 27; Wednesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m., with 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 20.
Where • Grand Theatre, 1575 S. State St., Salt Lake Community College South campus, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $10-$24, with student, seniors and group discounts; at 801-957-3322 or www.the-grand.org.
Running time • Two hours and 45 minutes (including intermission)