Columbia’s love affair with Stephen Sondheim continues. Just as the revival of the acclaimed composer’s hit from 1971, Company, closes after five weeks of performances at Trustus Theatre, Into the Woods, a darkly allegorical musical from 1987, opens for a three-week run at Town Theatre.
Sondheim, who has won the Oscar, the Pulitzer, and multiple Tony and Grammy awards over a career stretching back to the 1950s, has proven to be a popular choice for performing arts groups in the Midlands. Over the last decade or so, local audiences have been treated to multiple productions of his works, including Sweeney Todd (Workshop Theatre, 2008), Assassins (Trustus, 2011), and Sunday in the Park with George (Opera USC in 2016), and at Town, a concert-style rendition of Follies (2014)b in addition to full productions of Gypsy (2010) and West Side Story (2018) — early works for which Sondheim wrote only the lyrics — while the Chapin Theatre Company did Into the Woods in 2016 at the Harbison Theatre.
David Swicegood, who directs the current revival at Town Theatre, suggests that Sondheim’s enduring appeal is because he “was certainly a departure from [traditonal Broadway composers such as] Lerner and Loewe or Rodgers and Hammerstein” when he burst onto the New York scene as lyricist for West Side Story.
“His music and lyrics are so much more integrated into the story” than one usually finds in conventional musical theater, Swicegood adds.
Swicegood previously directed the work at Village Square Theatre in the early-1990s, and describes the score as “musically and vocally challenging, and [therefore] fun to sing,” which led to plenty of talent from which to choose at recent Town auditions.
“Singers with good ability love this show,” he observes. “So many counter melodies, and characters singing at the same time.”
Another bonus for potential cast members is that there are no small parts. Even the supporting characters have specific roles and functions within the play’s complex storyline, and there is no traditional chorus or ensemble.
The director, who helmed 2018’s West Side Story at Town, notes that Into the Woods is among the author’s most interesting works because “on the surface, it’s a light fluffy fairy tale story,” but especially in the second act, “the consequences of decisions are explored.”
James Lapine’s book and Sondheim’s music and lyrics involve familiar fairy tale figures — Cinderella, Jack who climbs the beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel — whose stories overlap and are intertwined with each other and with the original characters of a childless baker and his wife. Although each tale plays out in the traditional way, the play’s second act asks what happens after they all live happily ever after.
For example, can a commoner find genuine, long-lasting love with a prince she has only known for 24 hours? Can dashing heroes in pursuit of unattainable love be satisfied once the object of their quests have been obtained?
A well-known image from both the Broadway production and a more recent all-star film adaptation from 2014 is the anthropomorphic depiction of the Wolf (played by Depp on screen) that menaces Red Riding Hood. Swicegood says that he is retaining the inherent predator/seduction motif, but here, the Wolf will sport a prosthetic muzzle, and will resemble a male rock star, clad “in a leather jacket, with lots of glitter.”
A treat for everyone involved in this production has been the access to newly renovated dressing rooms and rehearsal areas, thanks to expansions in the 95-year-old theater building’s basement, which were funded through a centennial anniversary fundraising campaign. Swicegood says that musical director Augie Gil will conduct a live band in the new orchestra pit, located directly under the theater stage, with video monitors allowing for instant visibility and communication.
Choreographer Joy Alexander, who worked previously with Swicegood on West Side Story, says that the most challenging part of the rehearsal process) has been “making sure all of the actors have a clear picture of where they start at the beginning with their wishes, and then how they evolve and learn — for better or worse — about themselves, and the consequences that their wishes and actions make, showing who they— and we as humans — really are.”
Swicegood concurs, noting that the script overflows with the echoes of unspoken aphorisms such as “be careful what you wish for,” all subverting the audience’s conceptions of “the things we think will make us happy.”
“Nothing in this show is really what it seems on the surface,” the director adds, suggesting that the real message concerns “the challenges we face in life, and how we overcome them. It’s so full of metaphors.”
What: Into the Woods
Where: Town Theatre, 1012 Sumter St.
When: Oct. 25-Nov. 10
Price: $25 ($20 seniors 65-plus, active-duty military, full-time college; $15 youth 17 and under)
More: 803-799-2510, towntheatre.com