Last night, we went to see a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods at our local professional theater. “We” equals me, my spouse, and my parents. My mother-in-law was to have joined us, but she is having difficulties with her back and couldn’t sit for such a long performance.
Into the Woods is one of my favorite musicals. I find the interwoven fairy tale adaptation fascinating and love Sondheim’s ability to pack both wit and depth of feeling into the lyrics, which move the plot along even more than the spoken dialogue. I also have a longstanding relationship with the musical because it was a favorite of my daughters when they were young. We watched it many times through a recording of the original (1988) Broadway cast. For quite a while, I only let our younger daughter see the first act, which ends with the somewhat expected “happy ever after” vibe, shielding her from the much darker second act, until her four-years-older sister told her what happened and my shielding tactic became moot.
I enjoyed last night’s performance because the brilliance of Sondheim and James Lapine, who wrote the book, shines through. I especially enjoyed the performances of CInderella, the Baker’s Wife, and Little Red Ridinghood and the singing voices of the two Princes. Some of the other performers were occasionally flummoxed by Sondheim’s complex melodies, although those in the audience who have not heard the music over and over might not have realized it.
My major disappointments were with the technical aspects. The lighting was often too dark – and, yes, I get the whole being-in-the-woods thing, but it would have been better to use dappled lighting to give the illusion of moonlight through trees, rather than just not having enough light to see the actors. There was also a gaping hole in the back wall of the set, which was only used in one scene in the second act. It was very distracting to look at it for two and half hours when it was so little used. The stage could also have used some pitch, as quite a few songs took place sitting on the stage; alternatively, the actors could have been placed more upstage to make them more visible to those in the back rows. (The seating is cabaret style, so there aren’t many rows, but each row is deep.)
I was also disappointed with the costuming. Many of the costumes were too drab. A number of them were ill-fitting, especially too tight.
The theater company is in the midst of a change in leadership. I wonder if some of the technical problems are the loss of a long-time team experienced with this theater, which was once a storehouse for apples. It is a tricky space in which to work and the new team may be groping a bit as they adjust to its idiosyncracies.
One of the surprises last night was of a more personal nature. I found that the second act’s deaths of a number of mothers of varying ages hit me hard. As I have said, I know the play well, so I knew what was coming, but I found myself tearing up as the losses mounted. Sitting beside my mother, who had a heart attack on July 31st, missing my mother-in-law who is suffering from osteoporosis, having spoken earlier this week with a friend who recently lost her mother, and anticipating the upcoming birthday of a friend who died much too young nine years ago, my heart was aching more than usual in reacting to the losses in the play.
The loss of a mother – at whatever age – represents its own brand of pain and even fictional losses on stage can echo or foreshadow that pain in our own lives.