by Michael Bowen

In the second of the Coeur d'Alene Summer Theater offerings, the Schuler Auditorium stage displays a great deal of talent in support of the chosen musical. With a half-dozen story lines -- four traditional tales (Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Rapunzel), one modern improvisation (the Baker and his Wife) and a couple of other fairy-tale allusions mixed in for the final scene -- Director and Choreographer Bob Sembiante needs more than a single star. Fortunately, his ensemble shines.

Melissa Fleck plays Red, squeaky-voiced and hilarious, not at all sure that she wants to endure the bother of going all the way to Grandma's house. She skips through the forest, full of self-contentment. This last, as we shall see, isn't merely amusing; skipping complaisance permeates the medium and message of James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim's journey Into the Woods.

Roger Welch, the artistic director of CdA Summer Theater, takes on the role of the much-put-upon Baker, who was orphaned when his parents died "in a baking accident" and who desires, more than anything, more than the world, for a little child. Welch's character actually changes through the evening -- he's given more to work with than most -- and he's effective, whether demanding agreement from his wife or dealing with unexpected developments like giants stomping around the backyard. Welch has fine comic timing, especially when the Witch zaps him in the groin for the third time: "I really don't like that woman."

As Cinderella, Julie Powell is radiant. She's beleaguered as the soot-smeared chambermaid, resplendent in Judith McGiveney's royal ball gown, lyrical in her singing. (On opening night, she had the presence of mind to pull off one of the best ad-libs I've ever witnessed. An origami bird fell out of the fly-space when it wasn't supposed to. Powell vamped a bit, then improvised, "Excuse me, I've gotta go bury this bird." She exited briefly, having the presence of mind while returning to cross herself in the Catholic fashion. If you realized that something had gone amiss, you also saw how well Powell redeemed the moment. Brava.)

As the princes of, respectively, Cinderella and Rapunzel, Todd Hermanson and Jadd Davis are amusing, though they sometimes overdo the Dudley Do-Right posing. Hermanson doubles deliciously as a slathering pedophile of a wolf.

In her post-witch mode, underneath her sequined gown, Thara Cooper obviously has what they used to call a great set of lungs. She commands the stage in the evening's penultimate song, "No One is Alone," and she's ravishing in the finale, "Children Will Listen."

First, perhaps, among all these singing-dancing equals is Jennifer Niederloh as the Baker's Wife. (She's funny even in her program bio, where she writes better than your everyday talent-challenged critic.) Niederloh can deliver sarcasm and one-liners and tenderness and confusion and self-doubt, every one convincingly.

A staged fairy tale like this one demands impressive visuals. If anything looks tawdry, if the creaking is audible, we're kicked out of Never-Never Land right back into our humdrum lives. Michael McGiveney's sets and lights answer the challenge. Cottages fold into oversize storybooks. Netting and fabric strips lurk upstage, limning the murky forest. Ghosts trapped within trees proclaim prophecies. A golden sunburst highlights the occasion when the Baker and his wife first learn about the four objects they must obtain to satisfy Cooper's Witch.

Bob Sembiante's choreography and direction were inventive: the lustful, intimidating, stylized movements of Hermanson's big, bad Wolf; the double-circle dance of joy at the first-act curtain; Red's vengeful knife-wielding and slo-mo skipping.

Is it too heretical with a Sondheim-and-Lapine show to suggest that a summer-stock performance rises well above its Broadway material? When you venture into these woods of Coeur d'Alene, you'll be delighted by the multiple leads' obvious talent. The plot and melodies and jingling rhymes they're asked to perform -- those are another matter.

Sondheim's lyrics are notoriously difficult: When everyone's lines are three words long and they're set to harmonies rich with intricate counterpoint, clarity can suffer. The Carousel Players' diction was often fuzzy, indistinct. Sondheim, you see, writes rap music for the 'burbs: staccato one-liners, heavy use of internal rhymes, sing-song tempos. With sporadic exceptions made palatable for middle-class consumption, it all sounds much the same. As with rap, his music aspires to be social commentary; like lesser rap, it falls short. Flurries of the vernacular aren't theatrical language, properly heightened; they're just talk.

Lapine and Sondheim are on record as disagreeing with Bruno Bettelheim's assertion that kids need fairy tales because they need to work out their inmost fears. Sondheim in particular feels that folk tales, with their emphasis on wish-fulfillment, personal gratification and "happily ever after," incorrectly teach children to be self-concerned rather than community-focused. But children resist spoon-fed dogma. And Lapine and Sondheim, in the concluding sequence of song-sermons, are using not a teaspoon but a ladle.

Having spent much of Act Two condemning selfish pursuits and mutual condemnation (five characters all bleating "Your Fault"), Sondheim proceeds to insist that father and son need to get along ("No More"), and then again that "No One Is Alone." We all have to get along and pull our weight cooperatively, and, all together now, let none of us (united as we are) forget that we're all in this together. Really. We need to set an example for the next generation, because -- in case you haven't yet grasped our need for cooperation throughout our society -- can't you see that our "Children Will Listen" to everything we say and do?

Sure, it's a lovely final tune -- at last, something memorable -- and Cooper sings it beautifully. It weaved its magic, got me thinking about how I should behave for and around my daughter. All well and good. But how much more effective the message would be if we hadn't just been battered by the three preceding songs, all preaching the same sermon. Hail Sondheim, full of taste. Holy Stephen, father of musicals, preach to us sinners now and at the hour of our exit.

Just before that departure, Cinderella voices the storybook's final words: "I wish." (To be fair, the context envelops the moment with the richness of all our wishes for a better future.) We might wish as well for something else: a more melodic, less preachy, less self-impressed musical. The talent of the Coeur d'Alene cast shined through, but let us all take pause next time before genuflecting at the altar of Saint Stephen.

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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.