In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Liz Mistele plays Little Red Riding Hood and Eric Nelson is the wolf in Off the Wall Theatre's "Into the Woods."

Gutzman leads his actors out of the woods

Name the outstanding American writers for theater in the past 40 years. Edward Albee? August Wilson? David Mamet? Tony Kushner?

Stephen Sondheim belongs on that list. I know, he is a composer and lyricist, not a playwright in the strict sense of the term. But Sondheim has consistently used the American musical form to address the profound issues and conundrums of the human condition.

His work is precise and specific, and it often touches on the anxieties and vulnerabilities that keep us up at night. That makes Sondheim unique among musical theater composers.

With his 1986 hit "Into the Woods," Sondheim used the psychologically potent subtexts of Brothers Grimm fairy tales to plumb the dark corners of our worries and insecurities. Who among us has not feared being alone in the world? Who has not been tempted to run from growing up?

The enduring sting of loss, from fractured relationships and the deaths of persons we love, becomes a steady companion. Some people crumble in cowardice when faced with a terrifying threat.

The Sondheim songbook is thick with numbers that reflect his ability to hit the emotional jugular vein. I daresay none resonates with such depth and universality as "No One Is Alone" from "Woods'" second act.

For "Into the Woods," Sondheim and librettist James Lapine intertwined the characters and stories from "Rapunzel," "Cinderella," "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Jack and the Beanstalk," and they added two major characters and a tale of their own. A childless couple, a baker and his wife, long for a family, and their quest for children is the engine that drives the plot forward.

Dale Gutzman has taken "Into the Woods" out of the woods in the new production his Off the Wall Theatre opened Downtown last week. He has moved the show from the fairy tale realm of the forest to a contemporary world of skateboards, black leather jackets and an edgy street witch. The director's intention was to turn the musical darker and more realistic.

As an example, Little Red Riding Hood has traded her signature cape and hood for a contemporary school girl uniform, and the wolf is of the sinister skirt chasing variety.

It's a legitimate experiment that perhaps ignores the fact that our imaginations are often capable of conjuring much more menacing scenarios than what we actually see or hear. Gutzman's concept has a neutral effect, neither enhancing nor harming the show.

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