Timeless messages, music lead Penn State Centre Stage’s ‘Into the Woods’

Sam Seferian, the Baker, rehearses a scene with Emma Stratton for the Penn State Centre Stage production of “Into the Woods.”
Sam Seferian, the Baker, rehearses a scene with Emma Stratton for the Penn State Centre Stage production of “Into the Woods.” Photo provided

A little slice of Broadway is coming to State College with the Penn State School of Theatre’s run of the Tony Award-winning Stephen Sondheim musical “Into the Woods.” The show is a unique examination of what happens to a slew of familiar characters once the book of fairy tales is closed and put back onto a dusty shelf.

“The stories of these fairy-tale characters, as James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim express them, are Everyman’s stories,” said Carrie A. Johnson, who plays the Witch. “They are metaphors for our own lives, and those metaphors are timeless.”

“This show speaks to me as a parent. It is about the mistakes we make as parents, the lies we tell and the truths we avoid,” said Ted Christopher, who will serve as the Narrator. “At the end, though, it is about the hope that comes from children, who are now parents themselves, who can see clearly the mistakes made by their parents, and still understand, accept and maybe even love them. It is weighty stuff, made approachable by the themes of the immortal fairy tales, and of course by Stephen Sondheim’s extraordinary genius.”

In order for these themes to accurately be depicted on stage, the sets, lighting, costumes and choreography all must be top notch.

As director, Kasey R.T. Graham has been sure to follow Sondheim’s lead, but he has allowed himself the ability to improvise and to leave his own mark on his latest work, which also serves as the finale of his three years in Penn State’s master’s program in directing for the musical theater.

“This production is quite different than the original Broadway production,” Graham said. “I have set the story in a derelict library, all but forgotten by the world. The woods have crept in through the bookshelves. The design team has done an incredible job bringing this magical, fantastical story to life in a way that will delight the audience’s imagination.”

“Kasey has brilliantly envisioned this production. ... This is a great example of ‘theater in your face,’ ” Johnson said.

Perhaps the defining characteristic of “Into the Woods” is the musical’s ability to cover a wide-ranging canvas of genres, all with the capability to elicit a cluster of emotions from the audience.

From introspection to laughing to tears, this Broadway stalwart has it all and delivers it without pandering and with a great admiration for those watching everything unfold.

“The power behind storytelling is the most defining element of this show. Fairy tales have endured for centuries because the themes are universal and timeless and help us to make sense of the world,” choreographer Dennis Lue said. “This show also contains some of the most beautifully written music and lyrics in the contemporary musical theater canon.”

“ ‘Into the Woods’ is smart and you have to stay on your toes to keep up,” Johnson said. “Sondheim has challenged his audience to stay engaged and go on the journey with him, otherwise the audience may be lost to the real gems and lessons of the musical. However, it is still funny and quirky enough with its humor and songs, which are beautiful, tuneful and challenging to both sing and play. But I know that the audience will leave humming the main theme, a classic rule of music composition.”