Audubon Arts Heads “Into The Woods”

 Audubon Arts Photo.

Audubon Arts Photo.

The wife of a baker held center stage like royalty. Her eyes trailed out into some invisible middle distance, one foot pointed ahead. She’d just slept with the local aristocracy—the errant Prince Charming, wed to Cinderella. And yet, she wasn’t fretting. She was thinking: why not just have both?

Such are the moral quandaries of Neighborhood Music School’s Into the Woods, staged by its teen Audubon Arts Theatre Group from July 31-Aug. 2 at Hamden Hall Country Day School. Anchored by Audubon Arts veteran Marin Westgard and directed by Stephen Dest, the musical plays out poignantly this week against the backdrop of the cast’s early adulthood and inevitable departure down the crooked paths of life.

Based on the book by James Lapine, Into the Woods interweaves the beats of three well-known fairy tales (“The Little Glass Slipper,” “Rapunzel,” “The Story of Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean”) for the first half of its two-and-a-half-hour runtime. All the principals achieve their ends and live happily ever after, but are forced to confront the consequences of their successful quests in the musical’s darker second act. Vengeance takes the form of a giant loosed into the kingdom by Jack down his eponymous beanstalk.

There’s a reason Into the Woods works with a primarily teen cast. It’s got a lively, quick pace, cutting briskly from number to number like a 30-minute sitcom. With the notable exceptions of several expressive cows, princess cameos, and perhaps the whole wicked familigia Cenerentola, all the parts have equal time on stage. The musical’s egalitarian speaking roles let Dest keep down the danger of bruised adolescent egos, while maximizing his use of the troupe’s deep and diverse reservoir of vocal talent.

Lucas Esponda as the Baker, for instance, offered up the stock-in-trade sound of musicals during a performance earlier this week. His raw, flat, throaty tenor took up space. Even when singing from atop Rapunzel’s vacant tower, he carried clear into Hamden Hall’s second-floor gallery. 

Cinderella’s Prince (Jackson Tubis) and Rapunzel’s Prince (Dhillon Roy) managed several, highly competent two-part harmonies. They stayed impressively in tune as they agonized over their royal sexual frustrations, gesticulated broadly, sashayed aggressively around one another, and played straight some swashbuckling, phallic slapstick upon entering and exiting the stage.

Bella DiMartino’s almost operatic Witch–suitably croaky, but with resonant and rounded vowel sounds opposite Esponda’s belting—rounded out the production’s dynamic vocal range. She sung to her daughter Rapunzel from the gut, explaining the dangers of the wide-open world. She keened beautifully over the broken body of the same, disobedient child who’d wandered foolishly into the path of Jack’s rogue giant.

“Couldn’t you stay content,” she asked. “Couldn’t you listen?”

No matter what you say,/Children won’t listen.
No matter what you know,/Children refuse to learn.
Children can only grow,/From something you love,/To something you lose.

The Audubon Arts adaptation of Into the Woods puts DiMartino, a rising senior at North Branford High School and the Educational Center for the Arts (ECA), into the shoes of a mother fearful for her child’s chances of survival and prosperity. Read against graduation, DiMartino mothers herself as she counsels Rapunzel and then chastises her corpse. She ventriloquizes paternal fears she might not articulate for another 10 or 20 years in the act of acting. 

But it pushes things further by the end of the show. When the Witch finally comes to terms with her grief, leading the cast in the musical’s finale “Children Will Listen,” the inversion from “won’t” to “will” has implications for DiMartino, too. She, in short, now mothers her mother. It feels familiar when confronted with the rhetoric now emerging from the March for Our Lives. Here is youth, speaking wisdom to age—telling the teachers how they learn—as it playacts motherhood before parents, grandparents, and faculty in the crowd at Hamden Hall.

Westgard’s epiphany as the Baker’s Wife presses up even closer on the grid of gun violence suggested in DiMartino’s rehearsal of youth-led change. Emerging from her forest liaison with Prince Charming, the Baker’s Wife performs a conceptual coup. She flips the prince’s blithe exercise of droit du seigneur—that he can have all the sexual conquests he wants, because that’s what (male) royalty gets—into an almost Buddhist appreciation for the here and the now.

“Now I understand,” she exclaims at the end of her monologue, brimming with an overwhelming love for both her husband and her prince. Complete in this insight, she emerges from the forest only to be suddenly and completely crushed beneath the foot of the same giant that claimed the Witch’s Rapunzel.

Acted out under the roof of a contemporary American school, the arbitrary cruelness of Into the Woods becomes a probable parable. Westgard plays at dying without understanding a sudden, capricious force beyond her control. She loses to death.

But the parable of small arms control is secondary. Into the Woods’ greater skepticism about the desire for more and more fairytale wishes roots itself in the observation that the quest for riches ultimately drives people apart. Almost half the cast dies off as a result of Jack’s initial journey into the woods and up towards the kingdom of the giants.

Here is where the exceptionalism of the American teenager intersects the so-called “hedonic treadmill” of ever increasing awards and distinctions.“Wishing” for ever more accolades accelerates the dissolution of friend groups, as it propels the wisher along fast track to success. It asks: what is the value of that worldly success? Is the cost justified?

The text of the musical never answers. When the cast sings No one is alone./Just remember:/Someone is on your side, they sing it not to the five-member pit ensemble’s grumbling bass. Instead, they sing above the thundering call to college that will fling the tightly-knit circles packed into Hamden Hall’s theater across a nationwide diaspora.

Soon stripped of its southwestern Connecticut context, this Into the Woods provides a timeless refrain for teens in uncertain times: community, solidarity, togetherness despite the vagaries of life. After the lights went down this week, there was little doubt that the cast’s ears were wide open, listening.