"Into the Woods" -- which opened Thursday night in a new production by the Jacksonville Theatre Guild -- is full of wry takes on well-known fairy tales, including "Jack and the Beanstalk," "Little Red Riding Hood," "Rapunzel" and "Cinderella."
There’s something familiar about “Into the Woods.”When Stephen Sondheim’s musical begins, you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve heard some of this before. The musical, playing at the Sophie Leschin Theatre in a production by the Jacksonville Theatre Guild, centers on a Baker and the Baker’s Wife, played by Greg Floyd and Kristin Van Aken Jamison. They’re childless and so desperate to start a family that they enlist the aid of a Witch, who promises to lift the curse if the Baker can deliver a shopping list. “One, the cow as white as milk; two, the cape as red as blood; three, the hair as yellow as corn; four, the slipper as pure as gold,” the Witch sings. If you’ve ever heard a Brothers’ Grimm fairy tale, you have some idea where this is going. The Baker heads into the woods, where he encounters Jack (of “and the Beanstalk”), Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Cinderella — familiar characters who happen to be outfitted in such a way that they are in position to assist the Baker. But “Into the Woods” breaks from the Grimm formula by reaching “happily ever after” by intermission. In the second act, the characters learn that “ever after” can be a long time, and not necessarily happy. “Act II is the ‘reality’ act — it’s not quite as charming and pleasant as the first act is, content-wise,” director Laurie McCoy said. The show is full of wry takes on well-known fairy tales: the wolf singing a bouncy seduction of Little Red (“Hello, Little Girl”), and Jack bidding his sold-for-beans cow a wistful farewell with “I Guess This Is Goodbye”: “I’ll see you soon again / I hope that when I do / it won’t be on a plate,” Jack sings, with sincerity that belies the humor of the lyrics. Jamison said she’s been learning the tongue-twisting lyrics by listening to a cast recording over and over on her frequent runs. “I think people around Jacksonville think I’m crazy because I’m singing as I’m trying to run, and they think, ‘What’s she doing?’ It’s just you have to constantly have it in your head,” Jamison said. Floyd produced a 3/4-inch stack of index cards, each filled with handwritten lines. “That’s my first act, about 50 cards. And second act is a little more than 50,” Floyd said. At a rehearsal on a recent weekday evening, one week before opening night, the cast ran through the show with several members of the orchestra. Most wore street clothes, but there were touches of costumes here and there: a mask on the Witch, a bag slung over the shoulder of the Baker. There were a dozen or so bare branches scattered across the stage, and several platforms covered in what appears to military camouflage netting. Upstage, a white backdrop was topped with more netting and cast in different colors as the crew tried out different lighting looks. The stage is fairly small — the Leschin is more lecture hall than performing-arts space — but McCoy spoke with fondness for the space, saying it reminded her of Springfield Theatre Centre’s performance space before STC shows moved to the Hoogland Center for the Arts. McCoy said the Leschin had two other things going for it, particularly important in summer: “It’s air conditioned, and no bugs. The older I get, the more important that is,” McCoy said, breaking into laughter. “It allows you so much more control of the situation — theater is wacky enough” without the added element of unpredictable weather, she said. “Into the Woods” is a favorite of several members of the cast and crew. Darin Harms plays the Narrator and the Mysterious Man, but said he’s mainly in the show because his wife is playing the Witch, and it’s her favorite show. It’s the first time they’ve been in a show together in nearly two years of marriage, Harms said. “I just came along for the ride.” Luke McQuillan, who plays Rapunzel’s Prince, said McCoy directed the first show he was ever in, “The Music Man.” Now a theater major at Illinois College, he said that when he heard McCoy was directing “Into the Woods,” he had to audition. This is his second time in the show — he played Jack in a high school production. And McCoy said “Into the Woods” is her favorite show, and that getting to direct it was a “once in a lifetime” opportunity. She said that 42 people turned out for the auditions — good for a cast of 20 in a relatively unknown show. She added that it doesn’t help that the music is quite difficult. “It’s got substance for a musical,” McCoy said. “A lot of musicals don’t have a whole lot of substance. Not that that’s bad, because a lot of time people go and they want to see fluff — it’s entertaining and that’s fine. “But as far as production, and from an acting standpoint,” McCoy said, “when you do a Sondheim show you really feel like you’ve accomplished something.”
Brian Mackey can be reached at (217) 747-9587 or email@example.com.BROADWAY STATS Opened: Nov. 5, 1987 Performances: 764 Tony Awards: • Best Score (Stephen Sondheim) • Best Book (James Lapine) • Best Actress in a Musical (Joanna Gleason) — Source: Sondheim.com Into the Woods Presented by Jacksonville Theatre Guild When 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and Aug. 6-8; 2 p.m. Sunday and Aug. 9
Where Sophie Leschin Theatre (inside the Pathway building), Jacksonville Community Park, 1201 S. Main St., Jacksonville
Tickets $12 adults, $6 children 12 and younger. For tickets, call 245-1402 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.