Do you know what you wish?
Are you certain what you wish
Is what you want?
— Cinderella’s mother
Cinderella wishes for festivals. Jack wishes for food. The baker and the baker’s wife wish for a child. Little Red Riding Hood wishes for a basket.
The storybook world is filled with longing and magic and the happiest of ever afters. Villains are punished. The virtuous find just rewards. For a time, at least. But what happens after the wishes have all come true?
So asks “Into the Woods,” Stephen Sondheim’s sly deconstruction of fairy tale favorites. The Performing Arts Department in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis will present a new production of the Tony Award-winning classic Oct. 21-30 in Edison Theatre.
“This has been a labor of love,” said Annamaria Pileggi, professor of practice in drama, who directs the cast of 20. “It’s a show the students really wanted to do. And in a moment of social division and political polarization, I think it’s a play that speaks to our better angels.
“Yes, life is difficult,” Pileggi continued, “but look to your right and look to your left. You’ll find the strength to keep moving through the ways that you interact — and the love that you find — with other people.
“That’s a lesson we need now more than ever.”
‘The flip side of happily ever after’
Featuring libretto by longtime Sondheim collaborator James Lapine, “Into the Woods” is in many ways a coming-of-age tale, one that explores the often-fraught relationships between parents and children.
The story centers on three families. Jack’s mother insists that he sell Milky-White, their only cow and Jack’s best friend. Cinderella is pursued by a prince but tormented by her stepfamily. The baker and his wife, having annoyed the local witch, suffer a curse of childlessness. To lift it, the couple must obtain four magical items: a cow as white as milk; a cape as red as blood; hair as yellow as corn; and a slipper as pure as gold.
At first, things go well. Monsters are slain, magical items obtained, lost loves are reunited. By the end of Act I, plot threads have woven neatly together. Even the witch has been freed from a surprising burden.
Then comes Act II.
“When we return, we realize that people aren’t as happy as they thought they’d be,” Pileggi said. “They still have longings, they still have needs and wants.” The witch loses her power, the charming princes have wandering eyes, the wife of the slain giant demands her vengeance. “It’s the flip side of happily ever after.”
“We think of these as kids’ stories,” said visiting choreographer Sam Gaitsch, who earned a master’s in fine arts in 2018. “There’s a façade of princes and princesses and morals and lessons. But behind all that is some very dark and serious content.”
For Gaitsch, “Into the Woods” presented a twofold challenge. How could she capture the play’s magical elements, without the hydraulics and fly systems of a Broadway production? More subtly, how might the actors’ movements embody, rather than compete with, the narrative and storytelling?
“It’s like a puzzle or a game of Tetris,” Gaitsch observed. “I usually start with the music and the blocking in the scene leading up to it. What is the story of the song? Where are they when it begins? And where do they need to be by the end?”
Meanwhile, to stage the play’s enchantments, Gaitsch recruited a trio of dancers, whom she and Pileggi dubbed the Magic Moments Dance Troupe. In the original Broadway run, Milky-White was an unmoving prop. Here, the unlucky bovine, as portrayed by two of the dancers, emerges as a living, breathing — and ultimately soulful — character in its own right.
“There’s definitely a sense of humor,” Gaitsch said. “There are also moments of elegance and beauty, like when Cinderella’s dress is gracefully swirled onto the stage. These sorts of human touches are something theater does so well. But I also think they’re a good metaphor for the entire show and for what Sondheim is trying to communicate.
“These stories might be designed for kids, but adults need to pay attention.”
Cast and crew
The cast is led by Nina Silverstein as Cinderella, Eli Bradley as Jack, Brenna Jones as Little Red Riding Hood and Alexander Hewlett and Isabel Koleno as the baker and the baker’s wife. Amanda Sherman is the witch. Dylan McKenna is the narrator and the mysterious man.
Also starring are Brittany Rogus as Rapunzel, Chloe Kilpatrick as Jack’s mom and Ella Sherlock as the stepmother. Andre Harte is Rapunzel’s prince; Martin Ibarra is Cinderella’s prince and the wolf. Samantha Campisi is Cinderella’s mom, the grandmother and the giant.
Danielle Bryden and Jo Palisoc are Florinda and Lucinda. Zach Berger is Cinderella’s father. Andrew Breton is the steward. Rounding out the cast are Sam Cohen, Matthew Kalmans and Paige Samz as the Magic Moments Dance Troupe.
Costumes are by Nikki Green, with assistance from Asher Feinstein. Scenic design is by Robert Mark Morgan. Props are by Emily Frei and Cameron Tesson. Lighting design is by Seth Kleinberg, with sound design by Beef Gratz. Musical direction is by Henry Palkes. Ryan Hung is assistant director. Stage manager is Simran Wadhwa, with assistance from Chris Russell and Amaris Ninah. Production and costume shop managers are Sean Savoie and Becca Mersinger. Jackson Rushen is technical director.
Performances of “Into the Woods” will begin at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 21 and 22; and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 23. Performances will continue the following weekend at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 28 and 29; and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 30.
Edison Theatre is in the Mallinckrodt Student Center, 6465 Forsyth Blvd. Tickets are $20, or $15 for seniors, students and WashU faculty and staff, and free for WashU students. Tickets are available through the Edison Theatre Box Office. For information, call 314-935-6543 or visit pad.wustl.edu.