By George Basler

A lot of words can be used to describe Stephen Sondheim: outstanding, brilliant, even genius. But “easy” is not a word that comes to mind. Not only are his musicals often challenging for mainstream audiences, but they also require a high level of skill to perform.

Such is the case with Into the Woods, which opened this past Friday (Nov. 4) and will continue next weekend in Binghamton University’s Watters Theatre. The show, with a book by James Lapine, uses several Brothers Grimm stories as a jumping-off point. Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (of beanstalk fame), Rapunzel and others all appear, and their stories intertwine.

But Into the Woods is no fairy tale. After a relatively whimsical first act, the second centers on the disappointments, heartbreaks and moral dilemmas of adulthood. Not exactly kids’ stuff.

Moreover, Sondheim’s complex score ranges from fast-paced patter songs to operetta-like ballads as it challenges the large ensemble.

For the most part, the Binghamton University cast is absolutely at the top of its game. The actors bring impressive acting and singing skills to their roles. The direction by Tommy Iafrate, an associate professor and Director of Musical Theatre, is crisp and assured, and the musical direction by Mellissa Yanchak is first-rate.

The show contains no real dance numbers, but Iafrate skillfully moves the large cast to create a dynamic feeling in the ensemble numbers.

Overall, the production is immensely satisfying and funny when it should be, unsettling when it needs to be and emotionally compelling when it must be. The one quibble is that the cast is more assured with the show’s ballads than with patter songs. Some of the latter’s lyrics get lost on the Watters stage. Then again, these songs are enormously difficult to perform. They are almost defiant in their lack of tunefulness and contain intricate lyrics that need more than one hearing to be fully appreciated. Sondheim aficionados love them, though.

Into the Woods is striking for the dichotomy between the two acts. Act I takes the characters into the forest to try to fulfill their wishes. Lapine’s rather convoluted book ends on a sunny note when all the wishes come true. Act II brings in the clouds as the characters face disillusion and suffer real heartbreak. In the end, they unite against a common enemy and form a sense of community despite their imperfections.

The second act contains some of Sondheim’s most compelling and tuneful songs. “Moments in the Woods,” “No One is Alone” and “Children Will Listen” stand out. They rate as some of the most poignant and profound songs ever put on the Broadway stage. But, as often is the case with Sondheim, the songs also are ambiguous, complex and require some thought to process.

Jenna Cooperman, who plays The Baker’s Wife, does a fine job with “Moments in the Woods,” sharing her conflicted feelings about having a romantic interlude with Cinderella’s Prince (Nick Parker). Cooperman has good comic timing and is warm and sympathetic as her character.

Nick Parker draws some of the show’s biggest laughs, playing the prince as a preening narcissist. He also successfully plays The Wolf as a louche lounge lizard. And his duet with Matthew Beach, as the equally pompous Rapunzel’s Prince, is one of the show’s highlights.

Kristina Yim, who plays The Witch, sings “Children Will Listen” beautifully. The character is a difficult one, who does some really bad things during the musical. However, Yim plays the character for laughs more than fright and makes her character’s world-weary knowledge deeply relatable as she works in a wrong-headed way to keep her daughter, Rapunzel, in a tower away from the world.

Sam Katzman plays the well-meaning befuddlement of The Baker with comic skill. He also captures the character’s confusion and emotional crisis in the second act. His duet with Juliana Mpazicas’s Cinderella (“No One is Alone”) is arguably the emotional high point of the show, and the two actors sing with great feeling.

Mpazicas has a fine voice and does a pratfall with real skill while playing the sympathetic, if rather clumsy, character.

Other cast members in secondary roles do equally fine jobs, including Elizabeth McGovern as the regretful Rapunzel, Beach as Rapunzel’s ardent Prince, Olivia Timmis as a spunky Little Red Riding Hood, Patrick Saint Ange as an adventurous Jack and Grace Burkhart as Jack’s long-suffering mother.

Into the Woods is complex and challenging, but it’s also rewarding. Binghamton University’s Theatre Department deserves credit for taking it on.

IF YOU GO: Binghamton University’s Theatre Department will present Into the Woods at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday (Nov. 11 and 12) and at 2 p.m. Nov. 13 in the Watters Theatre. Ticket prices range from $10 to $20. Purchase online at, or call the box office at 607-777-2787 (777-ARTS) from noon to 4 p.m. weekdays