Like most fairy tales, Into The Woods begins with its characters already steeped in conflict.
The play, written by Stephen Sondheim and produced by the USC School of Theatre as part of its annual spring musical, jumps straight into action.
The story opens with a mother explaining to her son the need for sacrifice if their family hopes to stave off starvation, a baker and his wife contending with infertility, a girl with golden curls and a red cape embarking on an ill-fated trip to visit her grandmother in the woods, and an overworked young woman enduring the unjust terms of her servitude while her cruel stepmother and stepsisters prepare for a ball.
Remarkably, this staggering amount of action is somehow orchestrated to appear as if happening almost simultaneously.
Little do these characters — including such recognizable fairy tale figures like Jack (of beanstalk fame), Red Riding Hood and Cinderella — know that their paths would cross very shortly and change the course of their lives forever.
Into The Woods takes well-known childhood fairytales and weaves them into a tangle of wants and desires through a narrative centering on the Baker and his wife on their quest to conceive.
A witch — who happens to be the Baker’s neighbor — informs the couple of a curse that she placed on the Baker’s father years earlier when he stumbled into her garden in search of some greens for his pregnant wife (he pocketed a few of her magical beans at the same time). In addition to the curse, she also took his first born child, the Baker’s sister.
The plot of the play hinges on the Baker and Wife’s quest to reverse the curse placed by the Witch on their family, a task requiring the Baker and his wife to come up with hair as yellow as corn, a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood and shoes of gold.
It is on this hunt that their paths cross with those of their neighbors and the characters are forced to decide how far they will each go — both physically and ethically — to achieve their deepest desires.
The all-student cast does a phenomenal job of portraying the variety of emotional struggles the characters they embody must endure through the performance.
The dark musical features grim issues, such as death, loneliness and poverty, alongside instances of humor stemming from the characters’ quick wits.
Although many of the fairy tales portrayed within the musical are immediately familiar, Into The Woods takes a fresh angle and adds sudden twists and turns that leave audiences guessing at each character’s fate until the final curtain falls.
The audience is offered a close look at each of the characters’ internal struggles in such a way as to make it almost impossible not to empathize; Into The Woods makes each story and character relatable, even the Wicked Witch.
By the story’s close, all the characters find themselves in places they never imagined, with lives they never planned. Only then are they forced to decide if the process of searching for their desires was worthwhile or if they actually had everything they always wanted in the first place.
Although each of the characters might not have found what they intended as they ventured into the woods, their wishes in one way or another were granted. They are each left with more than they began with and soon realize that no matter what their individual turmoil was, they were not alone. The characters were so intent on arriving at their destinations that they do not appreciate the journey until its end.
Like all other fairy tales, Into The Woods offers lessons that can be applied in day-to-day life. Much like the characters in the play itself, audience members might walk away with a new outlook on their own personal wants. If not, they will at least have been entertained — the performance is nothing if not deeply engaging — with a new perspective on the same bedtime stories they grew up with.