CPCC journeys through 'Woods'

When Stephen Sondheim was in his 40s, the mother he'd kept at arm's length for years prepared for an operation she thought might kill her. She wrote a note to her lone child that said, "The only regret I have in life is giving you birth."

Their twisted, bitter relationship plays out in his musicals with major female characters, from possessive Mama Rose in "Gypsy" to selfish Madame Armfeldt in "A Little Night Music" to half-mad Mrs. Lovett in "Sweeney Todd."

So it's no surprise that the main character of "Into the Woods" is a witch who demands dangerous sacrifices and exacts harsh penalties for small offenses, and who is also a mother. Nor is it odd that the final song, the aptly named "Children Will Listen," sums up the moral of the show: Be careful what you pass on to the next generation, because it shapes their understanding of the world for better or worse.

CPCC Summer Theatre gave us a gentler taste of Sondheim last June in "Company," a more upbeat 1970s musical about the craziness of romantic entanglements.

Now it has tackled "Woods" in a year when many companies are mounting Sondheim's works to celebrate his 80th birthday (March 22). The piece is easier for an audience to respect than to embrace; maybe that's why Sondheim won a Tony for his score and lyrics, and James Lapine won for his book, yet the top prize for 1987's best musical went to "The Phantom of the Opera."

Performers love it, though, because it pushes them to the utmost and challenges them to find the emotion in a story that can be dry in the wrong hands. On Friday night, when Sondheim's fragmented and wistful melodies coalesced into the simple, lovely "No One Is Alone" in Act 2, the song's point was powerfully made.

Except for a stubborn baker and his supportive wife (Ashby Blakely and Susan Gundersheim), almost all the characters come from fairy tales: Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, etc.

As they go "into the woods" - that is, into the dark recesses of their ids - they're embroiled in carnality, murder, theft and other acts that separate them from humanity. When they come out, they can connect with others in a healthy way. Then the witch, who has manipulated them by appealing to their desires, has no place. (Olivia Edge plays her as a flamboyant harridan, a choice Sondheim might approve.)

Director Tom Hollis carefully keeps his sprawling cast in motion around a stage whose backdrops change constantly. (I wish the sound and lighting technicians matched his competence. Have microphones in Halton Theater ever worked flawlessly through a musical?) Drina Keen's orchestra wrestled with the complex score Friday, usually with success, and cellist Liz Burns added mellow warmth to the sound.

It's easy to exaggerate these characters - most are symbols or archetypes - and the strongest performances in the ensemble came from people who made their roles as true to life as possible: Adam Kaplan as beanstalk-climbing Jack, Blakely and especially Gundersheim as the barren woman who risks all to get her child.

Sondheim grapples with maternal demons more clearly in "Woods" than in any other show: The witch mother is capricious, controlling and cruel, and even the baker's loyal wife makes one terrible mistake.

Sondheim apparently stopped speaking to his mother two decades before she died in 1992 and never asked where she was buried. "Into the Woods" reminds us she isn't buried at all: She's in his plays, which warn us of the horrid creatures we could become.

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