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BWW Review: Theatre Memphis Astonishes With INTO THE WOODS

Stephen Sondheim himself is kind of a "GIANT," if you think about it. Over the last decades he has been responsible for raising the (musical) bar in musical theater with lyrics and music that can take an audience far beyond Rodgers and Hammerstein's "bright golden haze on the meadow." SWEENEY TODD, FOLLIES, PACIFIC OVERTURES, COMPANY -- all of these entertain and even challenge an audience; and even though ANYONE CAN WHISTLE, the composer/lyricist isn't just satisfied with that. His INTO THE WOODS (one of my two or three favorite musicals of all time) is evidence of that. Had he only conceived that first act (with that amazing Book by James Lapine), INTO THE WOODS would have had a show complete unto itself: Familiar characters from children's literature -- Cinderella, the Baker and his Wife, Jack (sans his Beanstalk), Rapunzel, and Red Riding- hood -- come alive, and the story of each overlaps with another, all held together by a cohesive Narrator (performed here by the indispensable Joseph Lackie, himself a former "Sweeney Todd"). If you walked out during intermission, you would have done so with an entirely pleasant level of satisfaction; however, it's that second act that catapults the musical onto an altogether higher plane. By the time the gorgeous "No One Is Alone" closes the performance, audience members are moved to be reminded that "sometimes people leave us / Half way through the woods."

I have seen many excellent productions of this play (even on the high school level), and I recall with pleasure the PBS version and the various recordings with Bernadette Peters and Vanessa Williams. However, on a rainy night in Memphis, the astonishing production directed by theatrical dynamo Ann Marie Hall has to tower over the best of them. The talent over which she has wielded that magic wand would make any director envious: This cast is replete with show-stopping voices and actors who imbue the characters with rich humanity -- a lovely, "try to do the right thing" Cinderella (Lydia Hart); a spunky, just-left-of-obnoxious Red Ridinghood; a poignant Baker and his Wife (Lee Gilliland and Lynden Lewis); a damaged and damaging Witch (Renee Davis Brame). It's a huge ensemble, and there isn't a single performer who is less than at his/her best. Moreover, the fairy tale setting by Jack Yates leaps straight from the pages of the most treasured children's books, and Anne Suchyta's costumes are colorful and inspired.

As a former instructor of English, I once had a colleague who, disappointed in her charges, lamented, "Children never listen, and they never learn"; and I thought of Sondheim's rolling that thought over and again. The Witch, feeling betrayed by her captive Rapunzel, rages that "Children won't listen"; but in the Finale, we are reminded that they do. The lessons and adages that underscore children's stories leap at us from the stage -- and challenge us to think of the choices we make and the directions we take in life. Following the lessons her mother had taught her, Cinderella tries in vain to succeed with pleasing her stepmother and siblings; both the Witch and Jack's Mother despair over the failure of their young to "do as they are told"; and Red Ridinghood's mother has drilled into her the notion that she should never stray from the path. In life, we cannot always see the paths ahead, and the choices we make (as Robert Frost reminds us in "The Road Not Taken") are perhaps not the right ones. Nonetheless, we confront the consequences of our choices and proceed with the journey.

.As the play ended, and as I watched those "sadder but wiser" characters prepare to face the challenges that life lays before them and us, I thought of the closing lines of John Milton's PARADISE LOST, as Adam and Eve are led out of Eden by a "hastening angel": "They, looking back, all the eastern side beheld / Of Paradise, so late their happy seat, . . . The world was all before them, where to choose / Their place of rest, . . . ." In INTO THE WOODS, they are not alone.

Theatre Memphis' INTO THE WOODS stands as one of the outstanding local productions in recent years, and I fully expect it to dominate many of the categories in the not-too-distant Ostrander Awards. Gary Beard's musical direction is impeccable, and the lighting design by Jeremy Allen Fisher and sound design by David Newsome and Amanda Davis provide magical finishing touches. Photo courtesy of Theatre Memphis. Through April 3.

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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)