‘Into the Woods’ puts twist in classic fairy tales LSC-PA, PALT to present Sondheim musical beginning July 21

Published 11:38 am Wednesday, July 12, 2006

By Andy Coughlan

Special to the News

Once upon a time in a theater in Port Arthur, there lived a baker and his wife, who desperately wanted to be parents, but a witch had cursed them with childlessness. In order to break the spell, they had to bring the witch a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold. Along the way, they met Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, some very charming princes and various other classic characters.

As in any good fairy tale, they accomplish their task and everyone lives happily ever after — or do they?

Visit Lamar State College-Port Arthur and Port Arthur Little Theater’s production of the musical “Into the Woods,” opening July 21, to find out how the story ends.

Written by multiple Tony Award-winner Stephen Sondheim, “Into the Woods” offers a twist on the classic stories of childhood.

“Sondheim was trying to find something that resonated with all of our childhoods,’ director Keith Cockrell said. “The play is about parents and children and that is what fairy tales are about. Sondheim has always been fascinated by those relationships, and ‘Into the Woods’ lets him explore those themes. We all know the story of Cinderella and Rapunzel and so on, so he doesn’t have to spend a lot of time telling the story and he can spend time playing with it and enjoying giving us thoughts about it we hadn’t had before.”

Cockrell said that with “Into the Woods,” Sondheim set about creating his own “Wizard of Oz.,” something that makes us see the world differently, while comforting us with stories from our childhood.

The show is well known among singers and actors, he added, but is rarely performed in community theater.

“The show is not difficult or inaccessible for an audience, they always lap it up” Cockrell said, “but is really difficult for a group to do which is why you seldom see local productions because it requires complicated musicianship. It takes wonderful voices, it’s a costuming and set nightmare — but we’ve got the talent here to cover all that.

“You always know how good a show is by how much talent shows up at your auditions. I turned away people that I would have been delighted to have as leads in any other show that I couldn’t use here because there’s no chorus. I had such incredible talent show up to audition that it really reassured me about the quality of the show.

“People who know theater love it.”

Local theater stalwart Victoria LeBlanc, who plays the witch, said she jumped at the chance to perform Sondheim’s work.

“I love Sondheim’s music and his lyrics,” she said. “I think his lyrics are clever and complex. They remind me of Gilbert and Sullivan in a way, the cleverness of the lyrics, the patter songs, but also the stuff that’s really lyrical as well. And the barbs.”

LeBlanc said that Gilbert and Sullivan, because of the times in which they lived, had to be more subtle, but if they were here today, she thinks they would have been writing shows like Sondheim.

Stephen Morgan plays the baker, who with his wife, drives the show’s plot. A frequent performer in local theater, he said he originally attended the audition just to watch.

“When I saw the caliber of the people who were auditioning, I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be in the show,” he said. “I really would have taken any part just to be in it because the talent level is out of this world.”

Cockrell said that there multiple All-State choir people in the cast and the quality of the music and lyrics brought them out.

“It’s the role of a lifetime for some of these people and they knew they would probably only get one shot at it,” he said.

Sondheim has a reputation for writing complex shows, but Cockrell said that people should not think that the shows are difficult to watch.

“‘The Fantasticks’ is the sweetest little simplest musical to listen to, but to play it is a nightmare because everything is in the weirdest key,” Cockrell said. “It’s hard on the artist, but great fun for the audience.”

The cast repeatedly come up with adjectives like challenging and complex when describing performing the work, but another word also is prominent — fun.

“I’ve decided Sondheim is a sadist,” Roxane Gray, who plays the baker’s wife, said, following the remark with a howl of laughter. “His music is difficult and just when you think you know him, he morphs on you. His lyrics are very complicated — fun, but complicated.”

Gray’s daughter, Hayley Ledet plays Florinda.

“I have always been a big fan of fairytales and I think this puts a funny, new twist on them,” Ledet said. “People will enjoy that.

“The most difficult part of the show is the music, especially to perform while doing all this wild and crazy fun stuff on stage. But it’s been a fun journey so far.”

The ensemble also includes Jeff Courts, Jeana Forman, Jacob Willis, Dana Deggs, Krista Courts, Patrick Lene, Jessica Gengo, David Sorrells, Dennis Riley, Jesus Pineda, Elise Stover, Scott Slack, Adam Domingue, Nate Hall, Kayla Harper, Amy Maxwell and Cassie Queen.

Cockrell said he thinks Sondheim owes a lot to the spirit of the 1960s “Fractured Fairy Tales” segments of the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” shows.

“He isn’t quite as silly as those, but he’s doing the same thing,” Cockrell said. “But that’s part of reaching back to what we’ve all shared. We all, of a certain generation, have heard Edward Everett Horton narrating ‘Fractured Fairy Tales.’”

The play is a light-hearted look at fairy tales, but with a twist. There is a strong notion of being careful what one wishes for, Cockrell said.

While many of the show’s themes are mature, “Into the Woods,” like all good fairy tales, connects with all ages, Cockrell said. “We’re rating this one PG, but that’s for a few suggestive lines. There’s no nudity or profanity. You’d hear worse on ‘The Simpsons.’”

So, how does the story end? Only a visit to the theater will reveal that.

“Into the Woods” runs July 21, 22, 28, 29 at 7:30 p.m. (Fridays and Saturdays), with one Sunday matinee on July 23 at 2:30 p.m. at the new Lamar Theater on the campus of Lamar State College-Port Arthur, at 1700 Procter Street.

Tickets are $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and students, and $5 with Lamar ID.

For reservations, call 984-6111.

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