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Going deep and dark: 'Into the Woods' explores fairy tales at Majestic

Going deep and dark: 'Into the Woods' explores fairy tales at Majestic


They say that one of the themes of the musical "Into the Woods" is the idea to be careful what you wish for — because you may get it.

What Johanna Spencer, the director of the Majestic Theatre production of the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical, originally wished for was the chance to direct Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella."

At least, that was the play she originally submitted to the Majestic powers that be a couple of years ago, but Spencer wasn't optimistic: "They're never going to pick me to direct a musical," she recalled thinking — in part because she never had, despite a long record of helming plays throughout the mid-valley. So she dutifully was preparing a short list of straight plays to pitch when word came back from the Majestic managers: "To my surprise, they picked 'Cinderella,'" Spencer recalled. 

A fairy tale ending, right? Well, it was until the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization withdrew the rights to the play — a production of "Cinderella" was in the midst of a national tour, and the organization didn't want the competition from community theater productions.

So Spencer and the Majestic staff went back to the drawing board, looking for similar productions. "The Secret Garden" was a possibility. So was "Beauty and the Beast." (Both shows, ironically, have been staged this year at Corvallis schools.) But nothing got Spencer's engine running.

Finally, she recalled, "When Jimbo (Ivy, the theater's supervisor) said, 'What would be your dream show?' I opened my mouth and said, 'Into the Woods.'"

There it is again: Be careful what you wish for.

Spencer's production of "Into the Woods" opens Friday night for its run at the Majestic. (See the related story for details about show times and tickets.) 

Spencer knew what she was tackling: "Once you're going 'Into the Woods,'" she said, "it's probably one of the most challenging musicals ever."

But it's not because it has elaborate and splashy dance numbers: In fact, one of the things that was appealing to Spencer about the show is that "it doesn't have a lot of crazy dancing."

But it does have some of Sondheim's most challenging music, and that's saying something. And it asks a director to resolve tricky issues of tone: It's based on fairy tales, but it offers a decidedly adult and modern take on them. (There is a debate as to whether "Into the Woods" is appropriate for children, and Spencer has a strong opinion on that point: No.)

In part, that's because of the darker tone the show takes in its second act. At the end of the first act, it would appear that its main characters — Cinderella, Jack (of beanstalk fame), Little Red Riding Hood and the Baker and his wife, who desperately want a child, are going to live happily ever. Spoiler alert: It doesn't work out that way. (It's telling that the version of "Into the Woods" that has been prepared for school productions omits the second act altogether.)

But Spencer said she isn't treating the two acts as completely different animals. "I look at the end," she said, where characters who have shed their innocence along the way "come together as a community and take care of problems" — and she praises James Lapine's book as a "machine" that inexorably leads to that finale, with some of Sondheim's best songs scattered along the way like so many bread crumbs. Spencer had praise for her musical director, David Campbell, and vocal director, Rebecca Douglas, for handling that challenge.

Spencer and set designer Ron Seymore worked together to create stage pieces that can mostly be flown in from the rafters, keeping the wings of the Majestic relatively clear, and the production uses some video projections as well. Isabel Schneider designed the costumes, a major undertaking: "It's been a big challenge to get all the costumes together," Spencer said.

But Spencer's goal is to create a clean, streamlined production: "Less is more. This is all about the music. This is all about the story."

And she's not the only mid-valley theater fan who considers "Into the Woods" their dream show: Some 110 people auditioned for this production. "It's a bucket list show," Spencer joked, noting that many of the people at the auditions told her they had long dreamed of being in the musical.

There it is again: Be careful what you wish for. The cast members who won spots in the show have often found rehearsals to be emotional affairs. "For people who like music, it's just so emotional," Spencer said of the show, and the result has added an unusual expense to the production:

"I'm paying too much for Kleenex," she joked. 


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