SALT LAKE CITY — Many childhood tales begin with “Once upon a time,” but when the familiar phrase is followed by three characters each declaring “I wish ,” theatergoers know they are about to be enchanted as they travel “Into the Woods.”
The highly lauded Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical, which inventively weaves several classic fables while blending in an original tale, will open at the Grand Theatre on Oct. 11.
While initially appearing as lighthearted entertainment, the show presents sobering themes and wisdom — and the timeless lessons are learned by both the cherished storybook heroes and audience members.
“‘Into the Woods’ uses fairy tales as a launching pad to teach morals,” says director Neil Vanderpool. “The woods are entangled, and the woods is a metaphor for where we all live.”
The comic but darkly lit parable is about parents and children, innocence and knowledge, happiness and wisdom.
“It's what we as humans go through in life in terms of the challenges, the obstacles, the trials, the tribulations, the quests for our desires, what we want and how we do go after that,” he explains. “And then what happens when we get it: Are we ready for what we wish for?”
The tongue-twisting text and lyrics of the show with so many traditional characters acting in untraditional ways can be problematic to stage, but Vanderpool believes the Grand cast is prepared for the dense and gnarly forest of “Into the Woods.”
“Stephen Sondheim music is not easy. Sondheim’s is among the most difficult music to perform, because of the rhythms, intonations, key changes and all those things that he writes in there,” he says. “And James Lapine did a marvelous job of writing dialogue to go with that. Between the two of them, they have created a challenging yet entertaining production. But this cast is doing a marvelous job. And the audience will be really, really entertained.”
To his knowledge, the Grand "Into the Woods" production will for the first time utilize a stage turntable “to quickly move the action forward and maintain a quick flow of the show,” says Vanderpool, the newly named associate dean of Communication and Performing Arts at Salt Lake Community College.
In a joint venture between Warner Brothers and the Disney studios, “Into the Woods” is slated to become a motion picture. Under direction from Rob Marshall, a Broadway favorite, a table read of the script was held Oct. 1 with a cast of theater luminaries, and Meryl Streep is in talks to play the witch.
Vanderpool believes the big-screen version “might be a good thing. I always worry about interpretations, and when you create a film it becomes ‘the definitive interpretation.’”
At the very least, “It was a relief,” noted TheaterMania in its announcement of the project, “to see Johnny Depp and Helena Bohnam Carter were nowhere near this one. Not even as ushers.” The biting comment, echoed by ardent fans of Sondheim’s works, is a reference to the ill-fated film adaptation of Sondheim's “Sweeney Todd.”
Vanderpool believes retellings of “Into the Woods” have the potential to delight and enlighten.
“It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen ‘Into the Woods,’ every time you see it again, it will speak to you, and I admonish the audience to take a chance and come see this production one more time, to enjoy the characters, the story and the morals,” he says. “And six months down the road, they will say, ‘Hey, I need to do this because I saw that production. I need to treat people better. I need to make better choices in life. I need to ’”
Or, as Cinderella, Jack of the beanstalk fame and a childless baker in “Into the Woods” sing, “I wish ”
If you go
What: “Into the Woods”
Where: The Grand Theatre
When: Oct. 11-27 at 7:30 p.m., with Saturday matinees at 2 p.m.
How much: $24-$9; senior and student discounts available
Tickets: 801-957-3322 or the-grand.org