Director Gerald Isaac thinks a playground makes an ideal setting for the Guild Theatre’s production of the musical comedy Into the Woods, which opens next week.
With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, the play has been a favourite of community and school theatre groups since its Broadway premiere in 1987.
This “fractured fairy tale” interweaves storylines and characters from a number of well-known children’s fables by the Brothers Grimm – particularly Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel and Cinderella.
The hook tying them together is the desire of a baker and his wife, who turn to a witch for a potion that will allow them to start a family.
She agrees, but with strings attached. Within 48 hours, the couple must find: a cow that’s “white as milk”, a cape that’s “red as blood”, hair “as yellow as corn” and a shoe “as pure as gold”.
The only place to find such things, of course, is in the deep, dark forest, like the one where Little Red Riding Hood had her encounter with the wolf en route to her grandmother’s house.
“My concept of the play takes place in a playground. The woods become the urban living outside of the playground,” Isaac says.
One reason the Guild’s new artistic director, Katherine McCallum chose the play was its appeal to young audiences.
“How often does a Broadway musical come to town that 5- to 12-years-olds can see?” McCallum asks rhetorically.
“In my concept, Into the Woods is a skipping game,” Isaac continues.
“It’s all based on timing and plot, and all the things you play, both in the playground and in life.”
But the play is not just for children. Its themes contain different levels of meaning for adult audiences as well.
“It has a lot to do with childhood passing into adulthood, passing through shadows to light,” he says. “It’s all about journeys and relationships, the relationships of children in the playground, the dynamic that happens between children when they pick each other as family, rather than being born into a family.”
Isaac, a highly-regarded opera tenor and musical theatre performer, previously directed Into the Woods in a Vancouver production in 2005.
“The playground has always been my vision, and the forest being the buildings, the experiences … not ever really being alone, but having to go through the dark place to realize you aren’t alone.
“Children go through that from the time they’re little. We just experience it on a different level as we get older, because problems get bigger as we get older. But basically, we’re all kids. We all would like to live in the playground forever.”
While the play has some subtly dark sexual overtones in such characters as the wolf, Jack and even the baker’s wife, Isaac describes it as a “moral” play with one moral above others: be careful what you wish for, because you might get it.
“That’s exactly how the play begins and how the play ends,” he says. “It begins with ‘I wish’ and it ends with ‘I wish’. It’s hopeful at the end, and it’s extremely hopeful at the beginning.”
Besides the wish of the baker and his wife to have a child, there is also Cinderella’s wish to attend the prince’s festival, Jack’s wish to be rich, and what Isaac sees as “Little Red’s” wish for a parent who can guide her.
The Sondheim-Lapine version of Red Riding Hood is not the sweet, guileless child she is usually portrayed.
“She’s the independent child in that playground, because she’s the one that is the survivor, and yet she’s the most deep-feeling one,” Isaac says.
McCallum and Isaac both have high praise for the show’s 15-member cast: Bruce Barrett, Erica Bigland, Heather Grant, Nick Jeffrey, Bronwyn Jones, Shauna Jones, Simone Kitchen, Mary McAvoy, James McCullough, Sophia Marnik, Sarah Ott, Christopher Tessier, Mike Tribes, Rebecca Whitcher and Winluck Wong.
Isaac also raves about the set created by Emma Barr, which includes monkey bars that double as Rapunzel’s tower, a slide that provides an A-frame like roof for Jack’s house and his stairway to reach the giant’s house, a firepit for Cinderella’s hearth, even a working merry-go-round.
“It’s a big play in a small space, and that is also why the playground works,” Isaac says.
Add in a four-piece onstage orchestra assembled by musical director Brad L’Ecuyer, and the Guild Hall’s forest-cum-playground will be a busy place.
Into the Woods runs April 14-30, with family matinees of just the first act on April 23 and 30.