Curtains: Sondheim's Into the Woods at PV Community College

Stephen Sondheim is not America's most hummable, road-trip-sing-alongy composer (unless you run with a really esoteric crowd). He's known for polyphony, occasional purposeful dissonance, and using meter and rhythm to reinforce subject matter and plot developments -- sometimes even writing songs that sound like a pointillist painting (Sunday in the Park with George).

Into the Woods, Sondheim's 1986 epic (Act I is 90 minutes long), is popular among non-professional companies that know they can bring the singing chops, partly because it has a large cast with a lot of great roles for women and partly because it's inspired by/based on popular fairy tales. It's also directly inspired by child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim's 1976 The Uses of Enchantment, which addresses all those nagging questions like why Disney heroes and heroines never seem to have live, present parents and why the older versions of classic tales have so much gore, with the cutting out of hearts, pecking out of eyes, hacking off of toes, slicing open of wolves, and so forth.

For children who are old enough (or have parents who are comfortable enough) to deal with moral ambiguity and some implied sexual activity, along with typical fairytale violence and scariness, it's an interesting show for families to watch together. The first act, especially, features lots of humor and relatable moments. Act II, which is much shorter, explores what happens after the "happy ending" and how we can use our experiences to treat one another more responsibly, which is more entertaining than I'm probably making it sound. (Plus the characters start dropping like flies after intermission, so that's suspenseful.)

Paradise Valley Community College's current production of Into the Woods is a thoughtfully crafted, lovingly presented rendering of the play. On a good day, college theater can be a real treat, and PVCC's program has drawn on the strengths of the school and community to integrate a polished orchestra and dedicated dancers into the presentation.

ITW doesn't traditionally have a dance corps in the cast. Choreographer Kathleen Brazie's program notes indicate that she and director Mark Stoddard collaborated on ways to use their ethereal, earth-toned sprites to reinforce character and mood, rather than having them bust out in full-scale, disruptive hoofer numbers. I found the strategy very cool -- now and then, a vocal soloist wasn't a strong enough performer to visually own the stage against the undulating bodies, but for the most part, the dancers' skills actually support the acting and help it carry emotionally.

Erik H. Reid's scenic design is an adorable, lovely forest that appears menacing or metaphorical when necessary, assisted by Shawn Smith's lighting. There's one big ugly movable "tree" that figures in a lot of the action, and it's too obviously badly made alongside all the other spiffy visual elements, but it won't keep you from enjoying the show. The cast puts their playground to good use, capering about on the forest floor and creating arresting stage pictures on the set's hummocks, stumps, and stones, as well as in the briefly appearing cottages and palace.

The performances are pretty dang impressive -- read these folks' bios and you'll figure that this was their summer gig of choice. I had some trouble understanding the Narrator's speeches, but again, that's not a dealbreaker. The sound was mixed beautifully -- I could hear every word of the complex, significant lyrics, and that made me a happy panda.

Into the Woods continues through Sunday, June 28, at the Center for the Performing Arts at Paradise Valley Community College, 18401 North 32nd Street. Tickets are $5 to $12; order here (and check for available discounts) or call 602-787-7738.