FORT WORTH One thing no one can deny about Adam Adolfo, the artistic director at Artes de la Rosa, is that he has ideas. They may not always work as well onstage as on paper, but you won’t see a run-of-the-mill production from him as a director. Ever. Because of this inventiveness, his work is always anticipated.
Sometimes, those swirls in his brain translate into something wonderful, as in his current production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1987 musical Into the Woods.
It’s the third in his American Classics Initiative, in which he reinvents important works of the American theater canon, mainly through the casting of Latino performers. (His previous productions in the series were Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge.)
His reinvention with Into the Woods is not so much about casting and, therefore, context — it features a multiethnic cast — but with a concept that works remarkably well with a show that’s already a mash-up. It’s the one in which the Grimm Brothers’ Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella and Rapunzel crisscross, with sprinklings of The Three Little Pigs and Snow White (the latter two were more prominent in the pre-Broadway tryout incarnation of the show).
Adolfo plays the show’s narrator, but he’s not a character that might have popped out of a fairy tale; he’s Adam Adolfo, theater director. The cast, well, they’re actors.
As the audience walks in, the characters are onstage chatting with each other as if preparing for a rehearsal or audition. Even the music director (Kristin Spires) and her six musicians partake in the chitchat. The parts of a theater are represented — the dressing room, costume racks, prop tables, etc.
At showtime, Adolfo steps forward, and before he utters the first line of the script (“Once upon a time,” natch), he adds “It starts with a story … you can be whatever you want to be in a story.” He works in his curtain speech about silencing cellphones — after you’ve posted about being at this show — here.
Taking the idea of the power of imagination to heart, the actors slowly add costumes that suggest the characters they will become in the musical. So the lead role of the baker (Joshua Sherman), who along with the baker’s wife (Alden Bowers Price) provide that made-up storyline that connects all of the well-known characters, adds an apron and a toque.
The first song, called Into the Woods, becomes part of the prologue as the actors prepare for their play-within-a-play-within-a-make-believe-world. And visual references to reading abound — the baker rolls dough on an open book, for instance. It’s sustenance for the mind.
The show comes together using makeshift props and theatrical tricks. Jack’s cow is a cow head on a stick with a suitcase body and rubber-glove udder; Cinderella’s birds are puppeteered on the skeleton of an umbrella; and the showdown with the giant is done through shadow puppetry.
Storytelling, fairy tales and theater are all about imagination; and here, it all plays on Lapine’s original concept of the Jungian experience of fairy tales — that they’re an indication of the collective unconscious, rather than the false expectations of “happily ever after.” In this case, the collective unconscious comes from a group of people with one very dominant common interest: making theater.
Although a majority of the cast doesn’t always meet the demands of Sondheim’s score — Price as the baker’s wife, Sarah Maria Dickerson as Rapunzel and Natalie Coca as Cinderella being the exceptions — its members play believably into Adolfo’s choose-your-own-adventure concept. Sherman’s portrayal of the baker, a simple man who travels a big arc, is especially on point.
And they all sound better thanks to the fine seven-member orchestra, which includes four string players, one on winds and two on keyboards. Spires, at her upright piano onstage, even figures into the plot.
The musical, one of Sondheim’s most popular — a Hollywood version with a star-studded cast that includes Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp and Anna Kendrick, comes out this year — plays with the idea that destiny doesn’t always turn out the way one expected.
For his part, Adolfo makes sure that his vision of “the woods” — also known as the stage, a place that can instill fright in many — isn’t such a scary place after all.