The right pile of magic beans

Award-winning musical, Into the Woods, is an operatic mash-up of Grimm-like parable and aphorism, containing too many lessons to count

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Jack is just a young boy. He makes little mistakes. He stumbles over his words, and he questions himself constantly. He loves his mother, and he loves his dairy cow, Milky White.

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Jack is just a young boy. He makes little mistakes. He stumbles over his words, and he questions himself constantly. He loves his mother, and he loves his dairy cow, Milky White.

But regardless of Jack’s (Chase Winnicky, with innocence) belief that Milky White is the greatest ungulate to ever chew its cud, his bovine friend, with her emaciated utters, can’t do her one job on the farm. So Jack’s mother (Mariam Bernstein, with reality in mind) sends her boy into the woods to sell the calf.

In a capitalist society, every beast of burden can be had in exchange for the right pile of magic beans. Buyer and seller beware.

LEIF NORMAN PHOTO

Rochelle Kives, Laura Olafson, Rhea Rodych-Rasidescu and Melanie Whyte in Into the Woods.

Stephen Sondheim’s and James Lapine’s Tony Award-winning musical, Into the Woods, is an operatic mash-up of Grimm-like parable and aphorism, containing too many lessons to count. But what elevates the work is that it is so well-disguised as a thrillingly fun stage musical that one does not notice until the end how many classes were in session. The music and the story are sometimes bippidi, often boppidi, and never booed.

Under the sensitive direction of Kelly Thornton, with deep, shifting sets designed by Gillian Gallow, and wise lighting choices from Hugh Conacher, the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre and its cast of misfits, ordinary people, and lost souls expertly navigate life’s winding, shifting paths.

Into the Woods premiered in 1987, at the tail end of a decade in American politics and economics defined by the idea — made famous that same year in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street — that greed was good.

At first, Sondheim’s and Lapine’s cast of characters would agree with Gordon Gekko, but not necessarily for long. At the centre of several interweaving storylines are the baker (Jawon Mapp, making a strong RMTC debut) and his wife (an excellent Jade Repeta), who will do anything to have a child of their own.

In response to the world they are raised in, every character in Into the Woods is afraid to stray from their path, shy to encounter unwanted change along any alternate routes. Not all of them go so far as to lock their daughter in a tower for eternity, but each holds accute fears associated with their own versions of the vast unknown.

And what do they find when they walk into the uncertainty? At first, exactly what they were looking for. But then, once they discover feelings of loss, confusion, or angst, each finds the key to chains they didn’t notice they were wearing.

It’s a story not unlike The Wizard of Oz, delivered — under the musical direction of Andrew St. Hilaire — at a lyrically ambitious point in the vicinity of both West Side Story and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Sometimes, the songs are filled with perfect zingers, as in Cinderella’s Prince and Rapunzel’s Prince’s (a well-honed double act of Tenaj Williams and Vinnie Alberto) rendition of Agony. But just as often, each character sings, and talks, about the fear of being alone. But, Sondheim says, no one is, even if it feels that way.

LEIF NORMAN PHOTO

Jennifer Lyon and Sarah Luby in Into the Woods.

Cinderella (Rhea Rodych-Rasidescu, with grace) wades into a shallow dating pool in which she learns to float. There is more to a witch (a fiery Jennifer Lyon) than meets the eye. Relationships develop as characters mature. “You’ve changed, you’re sharing,” the Baker’s wife tells her husband, their family finally growing.

In Sondheim’s Woods, characters are rarely defined by absolutes, only ambiguities. With sardonic wit, the late musical philosopher, who died in 2021 at age 91, reminds us that each person is fighting their own battles, and is in need of their own kinds of healing. Sometimes, people leave halfway through the wood. Then, there is no choice but to find one’s way to whichever destination lies ahead.

But, remember what Sondheim said about being alone?

ben.waldman@winnipegfreepress.com

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Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman
Reporter

Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.

History

Updated on Monday, January 16, 2023 10:45 AM CST: Corrects reference to characters who sing 'Agony'

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