“Into the Woods” in West Hartford Looks Beyond the “Happily Ever After”

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By Karen Isaacs

A production of a frequently presented musical, such as Into the Woods now at Playhouse on Park through Aug. 22, presents challenges to the creative team. How can it be made unique while still being true to the intent of the creators? Do any changes add to the production and do they work both thematically and dramatically?

It is a delicate balance that at times got out of balance in this production which is part of the first season of the Playhouse’s new Connecticut Shakespeare Festival.

Act One introduces us to familiar fairy tales – Jack in the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Rapunzal, Little Red Riding Hood plus one newly created fairytale that ties them all together. It is the story of a baker and his wife who want to have a child but his family was cursed by a witch to be barren. To break the curse, they must find four items. All of these characters end up in the woods where they meet and intertwine. By the end of act one, as the narrator sings, they have found their “happily ever afters”

But have they? That is Act Two – the reality of what can happen when you get what you wish for. A giant stalks the land, Prince Charming philanders, Little Red Riding Hood is orphaned and the Baker and his wife struggle with being parents.

Steven Sondheim and James Lapine were inspired by the works of psychologist Bruno Bettelheim who. in his book, The Uses of Enchantment, theorized that children use the darkness of some fairytales to deal with their fears while interpreting the stories in their own ways. This, he wrote, would contribute to their emotional growth and better prepare them for their futures.

Thus, while act one does represent the “happily ever after” ending of many fairy tales, it does not cover up the darker elements of unloved children, absent parents and more.

Director Sean Harris claims in his program notes that the characters are “travelling storytellers” which can be interpreted, maybe incorrectly, as these are performers putting on a show rather than actual characters. Thus it seems there is always a distance between us and the characters in the fairy tales.

But in “stripping the show away from theatrical, heavily produced magic and glitz,” Harris loses something also. We need some of that magic and glitz; think of our daydreams of winning the lottery or inheriting large sums of money. It’s why we enjoy those movies and TV shows of glamorous, beautiful and wealthy people. We may enjoy if they get their comeuppance, but we do like the daydream of us in those environments. His concept is most evident when the curse on the witch is broken and she doesn’t turn into a glamourous beauty.

The issue for me was that certain elements of act one were played for laughs, in an exaggerated almost burlesque way. While the audience enjoyed it, I find that it detracted from the central point of the ideal vs the reality.

The night I saw the show it ran almost three hours, including a too long pre-curtain presentation by an intern, and an intermission. It definitely dragged at points.

Despite these, the production is enjoyable due to the hard work and talent of the cast. Because of various complications caused by Covid, the cast does not include any members of Actor’s Equity.

This doesn’t mean that the cast isn’t talented and professional. They are. If I were to mention any  individual performers, it would be Kara Arena as Cinderella and Robert Denzel Edwards as the Baker. But there are no weak performances.

Harris has done a good job of using the big stage. The design by David Lewis fits Harris’ purpose. As has happened before at Playhouse on Park, the sound is too loud – it makes it difficult to hear the words at times and the higher soprano voices can be screetchy.

Into the Woods is such a good show, that despite the faults of this production, it is an enjoyable evening’s entertainment.

For tickets visit PlayhouseOnPark.org

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