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Wednesday, June 16, 2004

If you go into the woods today . . .


Special to The Japan Times

Whether "Into the Woods" works as meaningful entertainment for adults rather than just a musical confection of assorted fairy tales for children is the question hovering over this clever and complex Broadway musical scripted by James Lapine, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. First staged and directed on Broadway by Lapine in 1987, "Into the Woods" scooped three Tony awards, before picking up another for best revival in 2002.

Now, in Japanese translation, this visual feast is being directed at the New National Theater by 46-year-old Amon Miyamoto, whose triumphant success with Sondheim's "Pacific Overtures" at the same venue in 2000 prompted Sondheim to say he hoped Miyamoto would direct all his works. That immense vote of confidence bears fruit in the current production -- and a greater challenge awaits Miyamoto in December, when he will become the first Japanese director of a Broadway musical, staging "Pacific Overtures" in New York with an all-American cast.

"Into the Woods" gets off to a beguiling start, as a voice gently announces, "Soon we will start the fairy story." We're introduced to a familiar lineup of Grimm Brothers innocents -- Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack of bean-stalk fame, and Rapunzel, all living in a picture-perfect little village in the woods. We soon realize, though, that they're all deeply troubled. Full of uncertainty about the meaning of life, each in turn goes into the deep, dark, mysterious woods in search of life-changing experiences.

It's then that we meet a baker (Kazuki Kosakai) and his wife (Atsuko Takahata), who are longing for a baby. Their neighbor, a witch (Marie Suwa), tells them they must go into the woods and come back with four things -- a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper of gold -- to free them from a curse she put on their family long ago. So they, too, go into the woods of life's uncertainties. There they encounter the Grimm folk, who turn to them seeking advice -- in the process delivering to the couple the magical items that will lift the curse upon them. Everyone seems set to live "happily ever after."

Except that that was just the first half of the story. In the second half of the play, "happily ever after" is shown up for the cliche that it is. Cinderella's princely husband starts chasing skirt -- including the baker's wife -- while the giant's wife (widowed when Jack killed the giant who lived at the top of the bean stalk) -- clambers down to earth to exact revenge.

This is the climax the play has been building up to. The fairy-tale characters -- by now acting wildly out of fairy-tale character -- gather in the woods to do battle with the giant's giant wife in a confrontation that sees Jack's mother, Prince Charming's servant and the baker's wife all bite the dust.

It's only then, as the ceiling-high trees that have been smoothly moving to create both scene and mood changes finally part to let light into the woods, that our fairy-tale characters realize the meaning of life.

Added to Lapine's ironic observations on universal human nature -- our intrinsic greed and selfishness, and how others constantly confound our expectations -- are some very un-Broadway twists of Miyamoto's own. To encourage the audience to get into the story, rather than sitting back to enjoy mere musical entertainment, the stage has been moved as close as possible to the auditorium -- the orchestra pit that usually separates the two has been set back several meters. Miyamoto also directs his cast, especially the younger ones like Red Riding Hood (Sayaka) and Jack (Ryuji Kamiyama), to make their characterizations not mythical, but up-to-the-minute. Sayaka plays Red Riding Hood to perfection as a smart, cool and precocious teenager; Kamiyama is an all-too typical, sensitive, maza-con (mother-complex) boy; and Cinderella (Sylvia Grab) comes over as a monied OL indulging her every selfish whim.

Despite all this, there's something unconvincing here. The first act is largely theatrical and rather childish, devoid of deeper meaning, and the second act -- when the tale turned cynical -- was still weak, as if the hard-hitting punch it needed had been pulled in order not to discomfort a mass audience.

Miyamoto's contemporary twists notwithstanding, this production fails to transform fairy tale into cutting social comment. Sadly, too, many of the actors and actresses sang with so little power and conviction that they might have done better speaking their lines -- only Miyamoto regular Marie Suwa soars as the witch, though Kosakai and Sayaka to some extent make up for their lackluster singing by dint of their sheer ebullience.

"Into the Woods" could have been first-rate, full-on entertainment for all ages, or a unique and arresting staging for more mature audiences. As it is, Miyamoto appears to have got lost in the woods, going halfway toward the latter by Japanizing the characters, but then opting for the former and shying away from exploring the complexities of the original. It's as if he couldn't -- or didn't want us to, for fear of losing revenue -- really see Sondheim's remarkable trees for the woods.

"Into the Woods" runs till June 26 at the New National Theater, a 2-minute walk from Hatsudai Station on the Keio New Line. Tickets 3 yen,150-6,300 yen. For more details, call the box office at (03) 5352-9999 or visit www.nntt.jac.go.jp


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