If it’s true that the ends justify the magic beans, it’s hard to identify what doesn’t work about Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical “fractured fairy tale” Into the Woods, now getting a very competent airing at the Pleasanton Playhouse’s Amador Theater. Sondheim was very interested in the work of Viennese psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, whose 1976 book The Uses of Enchantment delineated the meaning and role of fairy tales, and worked hard to explore Bettelheim’s themes in a story that is as much about longing and loss as it is happily ever after. And he largely succeeded — it’s clear that you should be careful what you wish for, take responsibility for the consequences of your actions, and not count on a happy ending. All of which is couched in catchy tunes, clever twists, witty repartee, and some surprising twists. But the piece runs long and loses subtlety, becoming pedantic and depressing as the familiar characters — Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack the Giant Killer — grow up and change as a result of their experiences in the deeply Freudian woods.
Don’t get me wrong. The first act of Woods is smart and a lot of fun. But the second act, where Sondheim’s lyrics and Lapine’s book try to get all psychological, is as murky as the dark forest through which their characters stumble in search of self-realization. The songs, while still beautiful to listen to, stop making as much sense and feel longer. Sondheim and Lapine start to kill off characters, apparently at random, or perhaps because they felt the stage was getting crowded. The second act is strewn with death, adultery, abandonment, moral dilemmas with unsatisying answers. In short, it’s pretty Grimm.
None of which is Pleasanton Playhouse’s fault. Director Steve Shearer has gathered some wonderful singers and skilled designers; this show is a far cry from the enthusiastically clumsy Little Shop of Horrors he staged a couple of years ago at the group’s studio theater. Although the blocking is uninspired — other than the cow, and some stiff group dances, the actors seem to have been instructed to fill the space by wandering around aimlessly — the overall production is slick and attractive.
The plot is familiar but clever. Sondheim and Lapine took a batch of well-known fairy tales and wove together their narratives with the story of a timid baker and his wife who desperately want a child. It turns out the baker has been cursed by the witch next door because his father stole greens from her garden. If the baker wants a baby, the witch explains, she has a grocery list for him, every item of which he has to go into the woods to find. As it happens, those items can be found wandering around there: Little Red Riding Hood’s cape, Cinderella’s shoe, Jack’s cow — yes, that bizarre white thing really is a cow — and so on.
So the couple sets out to find the gear, encountering setbacks, catching flashes of other stories (the wife debriefs a fleeing Cinderella in the wistful “A Very Nice Prince”), and growing to appreciate each other. One of the best moments, really the heart of the thing, is the wife singing “You’re different in the woods” to her husband in “It Takes Two.” Meghan McGovern (who also sings the national anthem at A’s games) gives us one of the musical’s deepest characters as the baker’s wife: headstrong, tough, slightly amoral. She isn’t above ripping the cloak off a little girl’s back, or sending her husband to do it, and when an opportunity arises to kiss a prince she isn’t married to, she takes it. But she also is dedicated to her scatterbrained spouse (the nicely conflicted Jared Hussey), and we feel her sadness keenly when she sings “Sometimes people leave us, halfway through the woods” near the end of the second act.
Nobody else is quite what we expect. Red Riding Hood is a greedy, bratty little thing, stealing sweet rolls from the baker. Morgan Breedveld has one of the clearest voices in the cast, and she uses it especially well on “I Know Things Now” after her run-in with the wolf. The wolf himself (Robert Sholty) is written and played exactly as Bettelheim understood him; representative of the perils of a young woman’s coming to sexual maturity. “What might be in your” — sniff sniff — “basket?” he growls as he invites Red to stop and dream a little, picking a few flowers on her way to Granny’s.
Cinderella has no problem with dreaming, but she isn’t really interested in marrying. It’s unclear what she is interested in, besides not dishonoring her mother’s dying wish that she be a good girl. Liz Caffrey’s gaminish Ella is sweet enough but not really well developed until the second act, when things start to go south with her prince. The princes (there are two, and they’re brothers; Cinderella gets one, Rapunzel the other) are asses. “I was raised to be charming, not sincere,” one notes, but either one could be saying it. They sing a nice duet (“Agony”) about the pain of not being able to get what you want, twice. The first time, it’s heartfelt and moving. The second time, it develops nasty overtones; these guys have gotten the girls, and now they want new ones. The evil stepmother and stepsisters have the synchronized giggle down cold, and do a lovely job of being blind and maimed, bumping into each other in an explosion of skirts.
And then there is the witch. It’s hard to watch anyone else besides Bernadette Peters do the witch — she swept up the role in the Broadway production — but the leonine Jenifer Tice brings out the ambiguities in the role. She isn’t evil, but she’s the clearest-headed person in the kingdom, and sometimes that means she has, well, unpopular ideas. As she sings in the second act’s “Your Fault,” “You’re not good, you’re not bad, you’re just nice/I’m not nice, I’m not good, I’m just right.” She also nails the sadness of a mother losing her child — as much as she wants to keep and protect the brainless Rapunzel (“Stay with Me”), the child’s tragic destiny lies outside of her tower. Tice gets one of the show’s most tongue-twisting songs with lines like “ruining my arugula,” which she gamely delivers over the unfortunate addition of a too-loud drum machine set to a vaguely hip-hop beat.
The Amador is a nice theater, but the orchestra’s lack of a pit makes it hard to see the action onstage because the audience seats are barely raked. This is especially the case if you’re sitting in the left bank of seats, where it’s virtually impossible to see what’s happening at stage center because there’s a big bass player with a big bass sticking up right there — a problem a careful director should have caught by now. Musically the orchestra, led by Julia Grace Hinkley, is spot-on, but either it needs to quiet down or the amplification on the actors needs to be turned up. The company is otherwise very conscientious; an announcement before the show begins explains that a “nontoxic, water-based hazing device” will be used — that’s a smoke machine. Marianna Ford’s costumes are great, and the set clean and well conceived, with oversized photographs on the pieces that move and a forbidding forest complete with nontoxic water-based haze. It’s a good space to watch what people become when they stretch past their limitations — Jack has adventures and kills giants, the baker fights the curse on his house, and Little Red Riding Hood learns both how to wield a knife and be a friend. It’s just too bad that Sondheim and Lapine felt it had to take so long.