STATE COLLEGE - For theatrical storytelling with a rapturous musical score, it's easy to want to get lost "Into The Woods."
Penn State Centre Stage presents Stephen Sondheim's Tony Award-winning musical "Into The Woods" at 7:30 p.m. tonight, Friday and Saturday at the on-campus Pavilion Theatre, Shortlidge Road.
Sondheim's longtime collaborator James Lapine has intertwined the plots of several Brothers Grimm fairy tales with an original story of a childless couple and their quest to reverse a witch's curse so they can start a family. They meet familiar characters such as Jack (of beanstalk fame), Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and others as they cross paths in their journey into the woods in search of their "happily ever after."
Pictured is Carrie A. (C.J.) Johnson rehearsing a scene from the Penn State Centre Stage production of “Into the Woods” at the Pavilion Theatre. Johnson portrays the Witch in the musical retelling of Grimm classics.
The intricate plot features generally sympathetic characters who mostly have their wishes fulfilled in Act I , but have to deal with the dark consequences of what they wished for in Act II. The characters' longings in Act I are part of a witty musical fantasy which takes on darker tones in Act II when each realizes that they are inescapably dependent on each other.
If the saying goes, "You can't see the forest for the trees," the set in Centre Stage production would say, "You can't see the '...Woods' for the books." In a major but clever deviation from usual set designs, the setting is not woodsy, but a run-down library with two tiers, sliding book shelves, bunches of huge books, some used by Jack as a stool to milk his cow, and others with compartments to retrieve certain essentials, like a bag of magical beans.
The large acting company is comprised of Penn State undergraduate and graduate students and three equity actors. In the uniformly strong ensemble, standouts include Ted Christopher as the impish Narrator and Mysterious Man, Raphael Fairbanks as a fetching Cinderella, Lauren Moore as the feisty Little Red, and Carrie A. Johnson as the Witch, who really knows how to make a vivid impression.
There is some doubling of roles, notably Kevin Toniazzo-Naughton as both the Wolf stalking Little Red, and Cinderella's vain Prince who bemoans the "agony" of love.
Kasey RT Graham directs, fluidly moving the cast around the stage, and up and down the steep aisles as extra entrances and exits. Dan Riddle, music director, conducted the "Into The Woods" 2002 revival which starred Vanessa Williams as the Witch. The original 1987 Broadway production starred Bernadette Peters as the Witch. (The Walt Disney film version, set to open on Dec. 25, will feature Meryl Streep in the role.)
Centre Stage's creative team's top notch designs add immeasurably to the production's overall value. All costumes - especially the ladies' gowns - are rich, and the lighting creates a misty and dark atmosphere.
"Into The Woods" is probably Sondheim's most revered work, winning the Tony Award for "Best Score." But with a length of almost three hours with one intermission, there are a few too many songs.
The Witch gets to belt out a furious "Last Midnight" and performed back-to-back in the finale scene are the show's two best known songs "No One Is Alone" and the quietly haunting "Children Will Listen."
Evoking a wide range of emotions, Sondheim's music turns a fantasy with tart dialogue into a meaningful moral tale about responsibility, the consequences of having wishes granted, and the legacies left for children.
The Witch may cast a curse upon the fractious Baker and his wife, but it is Penn State Centre Stage's production which casts a potent spell of vibrant entertainment for those who wander into the Pavilion Theatre to discover what happens after "happily ever after."
Spoiler alert: For those who haven't seen "Into The Woods," The big, bad Giant is a woman!
For tickets, call 800-ARTS-TIX or visit www.theatre.psu.edu.