When I was in graduate school, I took a class in children’s literature. I expected the class to be a lovely balm for my soul, but when we read the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, I realized how very dark and miserable those stories are. Gone were the Disney-fied happy endings. This was torturous stuff—parents abandoning their children, witches kidnapping people, mermaids wishing for legs as they suffer the pain of knives with every step.
The Sierra School of Performing Arts’ latest production, Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, masterfully illustrates—with a few laughs along the way—just how rough these cautionary tales are, and how fairy tales really do showcase the worst, most-selfish instincts in all of us.
As the show opens, we meet a host of characters, many familiar, who all wish for something. As our narrator (Kirk Gardner) explains, the baker (Chad Sweet) and his wife (Melissa Taylor) wish for a baby, but they can’t have one, because a witch (played by two actresses, Cindy Sabatini and Hanna Blayney) has cursed the baker’s family. Then there’s Cinderella (another shared role, played by Darby Beckwith and Elise Van Dyne), whose wicked stepmother (Barbara Brand) forbids her from going to the king’s ball. Little Red Riding Hood (Tara Rispin) wishes to visit her granny’s house deep in the woods. And little Jack (played by Quentin Powers and Sam Crabtree) loves his cow, Milky White (Reno Biondi), like a pet, but his mother (Lynette Gardner) insists he sell it.
To have the child they wish for, the baker and his wife must go into the woods to seek out four items for 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. Off they go into the woods—but as they and all the others soon discover, they should be careful what they wish for. Little Red’s journey into the woods puts her squarely in the path of a big, bad wolf (Scott Hernandez). Jack’s decision to trade his cow for the baker’s magic beans leads him to a deadly encounter with a giant (Marti Creveling). And even Cinderella’s Prince Charming (also played by Hernandez) isn’t all he’s cracked up to be.
The first act’s brisk pace, clever comedy and happily-ever-after finish make the time fly, and I love every minute of it. However, I’ve never been a fan of the show’s second act. It’s a huge bummer—the hangover the morning after. Sure, it’s the whole point—the moral of Sondheim’s story—when these characters’ dreams come crashing down around them, but it’s also a giant speed bump slowing the action to a crawl.
SSPA’s production is a charming rendition, with a few standout performances. Beckwith’s Cinderella is a standout, as are real-life couple Sweet and Taylor as the baker and his wife. Their acting chops and excellent vocal talents get a full workout here. Also noteworthy is Powers as Jack, whose recent return from weeks of military service makes his performance even more impressive.
But that second act, though … it just feels long and slow. Also frustrating were the multiple mid-show casting changes that left me feeling unmoored, as well as some gratingly high-pitched voices and technical glitches. But in fairness, what I caught was essentially a dress rehearsal; I expect those will smooth out as the show proceeds with its run.
It would have been impossible for me not to enjoy myself, as I sat under the stars on a beautiful night at Bartley Ranch’s Hawkins Amphitheatre and enjoyed a night of great laughs, stunning costumes and beautiful songs.
The Sierra School of Performing Arts’ production of Into the Woods will take place at 7 p.m., Thursday through Sunday, Aug. 18-21; and Friday and Saturday, Aug. 26 and 27, at the Robert Z. Hawkins Amphitheater at Bartley Ranch, 6000 Bartley Ranch Road, in Reno. It will be performed at 7:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, Sept. 8-10; and at 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 10 and 11, at Reno Little Theater, 147 E. Pueblo St., in Reno. It will take place at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday, Sept. 16 and 17; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 17 and 18, at Brewery Arts Center, 449 W. King St., in Carson City. Ticket prices vary. For tickets or more information, visit www.sierraschoolofperformingarts.org.