In his ‘Director’s Notes’ for the Lucky Penny Production of Into the Woods, James D. Sasser discusses why directors often try to bring different approaches to popular works beginning with the old axiom that ‘familiarity breeds contempt.’ For someone who, in the role of theater critic, sees upwards of sixty shows a year, it’s a valid point. Save me from the umpteenth production of Chicago, please.
That being said, conceptual changes can be tricky. The successful ones honor the original material and add to it (setting Shakespeare’s Richard III in a fascist Europe) while the unsuccessful ones subtract from it (setting Hedwig and the Angry Inch in a multi-million-dollar theatre.)
Which brings us to Sasser’s Into the Woods. Some would say that the Stephen Sondheim – James Lapine musical is already one big conceptual change with its alternative endings to the classic fairy tales “Little Red Riding Hood”, “Jack and the Beanstalk”, “Rapunzel”, and “Cinderella”, but that’s yet to stop directors from going further. In the last couple of years, I’ve seen a minimalist production (didn’t work), a production set in a library (worked beautifully) and now Sasser’s production, which injects technology and video gaming into the mix.
Sasser makes the points in his notes that fairy tales have helped us to understand what it is to be human and how modern technology and its artificial connectedness is making us less human. He then proves the point by robbing the show of its humanity with the unnecessary and haphazard introduction of oft-confusing technological elements into the show.
The show opens with the band (led by Craig Burdette) entering and taking their places on stage. The band is dressed in all white scrubs as is a masked cast member. The set is comprised of several small platforms holding a variety of computers, monitors and lights. The back wall, which is draped in white plastic camouflage netting, has a screen on it. Soon the lab coat-wearing, iMac-pushing narrator (Barry Martin) enters and begins with “Once upon a time…”
So, where are we? The sterile set and costuming would indicate a computer lab, I guess, but it also felt like it could be the opening to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. And why the hell is the lead technician (?) telling fairy tales?
No clue, but here we go with Jack (Ryan Hook), his mother (Karen Pinomaki) and their cow (who appears to have leapt off the screen from a game of Minecraft), a baker (Tim Setzer) and his wife (Vivian McLaughlin) who desire a child, Little Red Riding Hood (Pilar Gonzales), Cinderella (Madison Genovese), her evil stepmother (Shannon Rider) and her equally evil stepsisters (Jenny Villeux & Melody Payne) and a witch (Taylor Bartolucci) who will send the baker and his wife into the woods on a quest that will entangle them with all the aforementioned characters plus some.
If you know the original tales, you’ll be able to follow but don’t be surprised if you get confused by some of the conceptual choices, like a completely inconsistent approach to costuming. Some characters are dressed in modern attire, some in period costume, others in futuristic garb, and others in I-don’t-know what-the-hell-to-call-it. There’s a screen on the back wall that seems to impart some important plot information but unless you’re sitting in the seats facing it you’re likely to miss it. At one point, one of the characters seems to be suffer a “glitch” and repeats a line till she gets “rebooted”. Are all these characters animatronic robots? Are we watching a 3-D game simulation?
The problem with all the conceptual questions raised by this production is that they distract you from some really good performances and from the original issues raised by its authors. Your focus is often derailed by your desire to identify the latest out-of-place sound (Hey! That’s from Pac-Man!) or image (Why does she have lights in her hair?)
Which is a shame because Sasser has cast the show well with strong performances from just about everybody, including himself as Cinderella’s Prince. It’s a great blend of veterans like Setzer and Pinomaki with North Bay newcomers like Gonzales and McLaughlin. Lucky Penny Co-Founders Bartolucci and Martin are perfect for their roles, and Genovese makes for a sweet and sad Cinderella.
Burdette does his usual fine job of musical direction with a five-piece band comprised of himself (keyboards,) Brendan Buss (flute,) Ruth Wilson (horn,) Josh Minkus-Mahoney (cello,) and Jarratt Rossini (bassoon) expertly delivering the Sondheim score and the cast’s uniformly strong voices match their performances.
With performers and musicians like that, why mess with a good thing?
Rating (out of 5): ★★★½
‘Into the Woods’ plays Thursday–Sunday through September 23 at the Lucky Penny Community Arts Center, 1758 Industrial Way, Napa. Thursday, 7pm; Friday–Saturday, 8pm; Sunday, 2pm. $28–$39. 707.266.6305. luckypennynapa.com.
Photos by Kurt Gonsalves