Trip thee lightly into the woods my darlings but beware the eternal dangers lurking there. Thus it is and thus it shall always be. The woods are full of wolves, giants, controlling mothers, faithless spouses, impossible dreams … all manner of threats, real and imagined, variously penned by the Brothers Grimm about 200 years ago and polished up to a fare-thee-well in a mélange by Stephen Sondheim.
Lucky you if your path can take you to the hills of Beverly where the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of "Into The Woods" is currently on view at the Wallis. Run, I would say, before the mouse attacks and Disney takes over the mantle. As you take your seat at the Wallis you suspect something is up; musicians wander up on the almost bare stage and actors stretch and kibitz about, ignoring the audience. Music strikes up, the house lights are still on, but immediately you are awash in a tune you know will be stuck in your head for days; there will be more of them. Little by little the youthful cast slips into fanciful costumes by Linda Roethke and the romp is on.
"Into The Woods" is a mixture of familiar tales: "Little Red Riding Hood," "Jack in the Beanstalk," “Rapunzel," "Cinderella" are combined into an adult cocktail that all ages can appreciate at their own levels. You can trust Sondheim to eschew the saccharine and go instead for the blood and guts. In any one else's hands this might become a ridiculous exercise, but in Sondheim's the results are very tasty blood and guts indeed. Kjerstine Rose Anderson (Little Red Riding Hood) and Miriam A. Laube (the Witch) are reason enough to justify buying a ticket. Anderson embodies the devilish little girl, hell-bent on doing things her way, while Laube's Witch is suffocatingly protective of her daughter, Rapunzel, and seriously evil with everyone else. If I have a bone to pick — one does not get called a critic for nothing — it is that not all cast members can be understood at all times, and Sondheim lyrics are too good to miss. Laube and Anderson are definite exceptions. In particular, Laube's every word could make your blood run cold. You do not want to miss a one of hers, and you will not.
In 1976 Bruno Bettelheim wrote "The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales." Sondheim and James Lapine were inspired by that book to write "Into The Woods," but do not let the paternity of a weighty tome discourage you. Their eyes were firmly on entertainment, while the lyrics will often grab you at an emotional level. Can no parent fail to cringe when Rapunzel hurls "Because of the way you've treated me I'll never be happy" at the Witch? Or the Witch's closing lament, "Careful before you say, 'listen to me' … the tale you tell; that is the spell."
The world does not need a sanitized version of "Into The Woods" and children do not need all the production values of a Disney blowout (though Meryl Streep will probably do the Witch's role justice). The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has produced a musical that truly works magic across generations. Some may protest that parts of the material are too provocative for little ears. My answer would be, “In a world where driving your kid to soccer practice means passing smutty billboards for the likes of Guess Jeans, better they see a true work of art.” They probably have already figured out that there is no such thing as happily ever after, but there is music and art and all sorts of things that make the trip into the woods worthwhile.