Lamb's Players Theatre opens its 20th anniversary season Friday with Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods," a storybook musical with a storied past.
It premiered at the Old Globe Theatre in 1986 and opened on Broadway the following year, winning three Tony awards including best score. A Broadway revival was mounted in 2002 and now, 20 years after its debut, San Diego theater audiences are heading back into the woods.
The musical, with book by James Lapine, is an interlaced patchwork of familiar fairy tales along with an original story involving a Baker and his Wife. Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack of beanstalk fame, two princes and a witch also make appearances. Each character enters the woods in search of his or her "happily ever after," and everything seems to wrap up nicely by the end of the first act.
So nicely that, as the stories go, some Globe audiences at the original run headed for the parking lots following the act one finale. According to Chip Zien, the original Baker, Sondheim would usher people back into the theater, telling them the show wasn't over.
But the heart of the musical examines what happens after "happily ever after."
Every action taken in the first half to fulfill selfish wishes has effects -- often devastating -- in the second. Like many fairy tales, this one provides some lessons: Be careful what you wish for. Think before you act. Take responsibility for your actions.
"Into the Woods" is a story about storytelling, said Robert Smyth, who as director is something of a yarn-spinner himself. "There's a sense of impact of our own life as a story, as well as the stories we tell," he said. "Be careful the tales you tell, because that's the spell you put on the next generation."
To help tell this tale, Smyth hired musical director G. Scott Lacy, who has worked extensively with San Diego Opera and La Jolla Playhouse. This is his fifth production of "Into the Woods," including his first experience with the musical as a performer in college. This level of familiarity, he said, can be both a benefit and a hindrance.
"My main approach (to the musical direction) was to completely wipe my mind clean of what I had heard for so long," said Lacy. "It was knowing exactly who my performers were, these brilliant performers that we have, and knowing that I needed to let them make (the show) theirs, to not constantly do a comparison."
Musically, Sondheim is always a challenge. The composer is known for writing some of the most complex scores for musical theater. For this production, Lacy and the cast of Lamb's veterans and newcomers were also challenged by logistics. Because the musicians are located onstage in the trees, the actors cannot see the conductor, adding another layer of difficulty. Lacy also had to try to create a full sound with just six musicians.
"To get the full, lush sounds Sondheim wrote, strings were really necessary for me. I see it almost like a chamber piece the way we're doing it," he said. "I've done it on a large scale, but sometimes when go we that large, we lose texts; we lose the musical line. I wanted to make sure this time that we let the words speak."
The words speak most poignantly in songs like "No One Is Alone," "Children Will Listen" and "No More," touching on subjects such as parent-child relationships and the individual's responsibility to the community. But for its often-preachy lessons and exploration into the dark heart of human nature, the musical does end on an encouraging note. The characters emerge from the woods changed, matured.
"What I love about this piece is, by the time it ends, relationships have been torn up -- by betrayal, death, insecurity and all sorts of things -- but you still have a remarkable sense of hope, a sense of the need for continuity, the need for the continuation of family, of telling the story to the next generation," Smyth said. "It goes from pain and ends very hopeful."
PROGRAM: "Into The Woods," directed by Robert Smyth
Organization: Lamb's Players Theatre
Dates: Opens Friday, runs through March 19
Show times: Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 4 and 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m.
Location: Lamb's Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Ave., Coronado
More information: (619) 437-0600, www.lambsplayers.org
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