Dark  Fantasy: 'Into the Woods' tackles tough, real-life issues with fairy tale characters

Director Todd Avery particularly enjoys the “dark side” of Into the Woods, the hugely successful musical penned by James Lapine and composed by the iconic Stephen Sondheim.

“I know a lot of his shows have those darker elements,” Avery said of Sondheim, famous for composing musicals like Sweeney Todd and West Side Story. “He really does seem to — in my opinion — do an excellent job of getting at the human spirit and understanding what makes people tick, and then he kind of creates these stories around that.”

Coming this month to Circle Theatre, Avery’s version of Into the Woods — which includes some changes — centers on a baker and his wife who are trying to have a baby but can’t because of a curse put on them. They journey into the woods to undo this curse and along the way run into various storybook characters like Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and Sleeping Beauty.

There are two versions of these fairytale stories — the kid-friendly version and the “grim” version — and this show contains a combo of the two. Avery’s biggest goal with the show is to make the characters relatable to the audience.

“It’s not just princes and princesses and witches and things like that,” Avery said.

“These are real people that we see every day, whether it’s in the media or in our lives. Nobody is perfect, and I think that’s kind of what this show goes for. We all have wishes and we all want things. But in particular, nowadays, we want those things at the exclusion of everybody else. We’re a little selfish.”

Music Director Brendan Hollins said the show connects all of these somewhat selfish characters and their varying stories together, forcing them to collaborate.

“There’s a nice theme about having to come together to work on a common problem, which is always relevant to political situations,” Hollins said.

Avery agreed, adding that it relates to our current political, social and cultural state.

“It’s easy when fear overtakes everything to think selfishly,” Avery said. “And I think those are the times when people need to stand up and go, ‘Everybody’s afraid, so how do we all try not to be afraid anymore instead of just sticking to our own issues.’”

Avery said he is taking more of a “modern approach” and wants to focus less on the fairy tale aspects of the characters.

“(Cinderella) doesn’t necessarily have to be wearing a big ball gown for us to be able to relate to her issues of indecision and confusion, in particular as a woman,” Avery said.

Technology is another aspect of the show Avery wants to highlight, as he believes it causes real distance between people nowadays.

“I think of the stepsisters kind of as the Kardashian sisters." Avery said. "It’s that idea of complete self-centeredness and technology completely taking over our lives, so our characters have cell phones, which I think isolates people more than brings them together.”

Prince Charming also is not so charming. Avery relates the princes as well as the Big Bad Wolf to “male predators.”

“Within the current script, they’re kind of ‘womanizers,’” Avery said. “They’re much more into the pursuit rather than the relationship, and I’m just taking that and expanding on that to make them more predators.”

From a music perspective, Hollins said he wants to honor Sondheim’s “beautifully written” score as much as possible. Avery described the rhythm structure as “complicated.”

“The range is really crazy, he jumps all over the place,” he said. “It’s a real challenge for our actors as well as our musicians.”

While the show is tricky, Avery said the cast is “nailing it.”

“I was gone for a couple weeks and I just came in this week and holy cow, they’re awesome,” he said. “I’ve been really pleased … with their progress. I think we’re really ahead of the game with a really tough score.”

Avery is excited to see the energy his cast brings to the stage.

“I’m really happy with the casting,” he said. “I think it’s just going to be a very memorable event for everybody.”

Into the Woods
Circle Theatre
1703 Robinson Rd. SE, Grand Rapids
May 3-19, $26+