By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Jul 29, 2010 at 9:02 AM

Name the outstanding American writers for theater in the past 40 years. Edward Albee? August Wilson? David Mamet? Tony Kushner?

Stephen Sondheim belongs on that list. I know, he is a composer and lyricist, not a playwright in the strict sense of the term. But Sondheim has consistently used the American musical form to address the profound issues and conundrums of the human condition.

His work is precise and specific, and it often touches on the anxieties and vulnerabilities that keep us up at night. That makes Sondheim unique among musical theater composers.

With his 1986 hit "Into the Woods," Sondheim used the psychologically potent subtexts of Brothers Grimm fairy tales to plumb the dark corners of our worries and insecurities. Who among us has not feared being alone in the world? Who has not been tempted to run from growing up?

The enduring sting of loss, from fractured relationships and the deaths of persons we love, becomes a steady companion. Some people crumble in cowardice when faced with a terrifying threat.

The Sondheim songbook is thick with numbers that reflect his ability to hit the emotional jugular vein. I daresay none resonates with such depth and universality as "No One Is Alone" from "Woods'" second act.

For "Into the Woods," Sondheim and librettist James Lapine intertwined the characters and stories from "Rapunzel," "Cinderella," "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Jack and the Beanstalk," and they added two major characters and a tale of their own. A childless couple, a baker and his wife, long for a family, and their quest for children is the engine that drives the plot forward.

Dale Gutzman has taken "Into the Woods" out of the woods in the new production his Off the Wall Theatre opened Downtown last week. He has moved the show from the fairy tale realm of the forest to a contemporary world of skateboards, black leather jackets and an edgy street witch. The director's intention was to turn the musical darker and more realistic.

As an example, Little Red Riding Hood has traded her signature cape and hood for a contemporary school girl uniform, and the wolf is of the sinister skirt chasing variety.

It's a legitimate experiment that perhaps ignores the fact that our imaginations are often capable of conjuring much more menacing scenarios than what we actually see or hear. Gutzman's concept has a neutral effect, neither enhancing nor harming the show.

Pleasing performances, including actors who sing Sondheim well, make this "Into the Woods" worth seeing. Liz Mistele is perfectly cast as Little Red Riding Hood. She has a natural flair for girl/woman roles, thanks to an angelic face that can turn funny, bratty or sexy with the bat of one of her big eyes
The small Off the Wall stage brightens every time Mistele steps on it.

Patrick McGuire's Jack (as in the beanstalk) is first rate. McGuire sings with an exceptional tenor voice, and his portrayal of the character as a sweet but easily confused kid is right on the mark.

Jeremy C. Welter's calm and confident narrator immediately establishes a polished level of performance for the production, and he is interesting to watch. Substantial contributions are also received from Sharon Rise (baker's wife) and Jacqueline Roush (Cinderella), who act and sing with compelling skill and presence.

A special shout-out must go to Lawrence J. Lukasavage, a particularly dedicated member of the Off the Wall troupe who never gets to play the leading man. Here he portrays Milky White, the cow Jack trades for magical beans, and Lukasavage is wonderfully droll with large, sad eyes.

Production values are strong for a small storefront theater. "Into the Woods" continues through Aug. 8.

What a Difference a Year Makes 

A year ago at this time, the Skylight Opera Theatre was locked in a ferocious struggle over who controlled it. The situation became so toxic, the company's future was in serious doubt.

The crisis was finally resolved, the eminently qualified Amy S. Jensen was hired to manage the business side of the operations, and the Skylight ended its 2009-10 season with terrific news. The company's financial goals for the season were met and exceeded.

Operating expenses were $165,000 lower than budgeted, and contributed income was higher. An aggressive debt reduction plan trimmed accumulated indebtedness by 30 percent, and $221,500 was raised for a reserve building fund. That enabled the Skylight to move forward on some deferred maintenance projects for the Broadway 
Theatre Center, which the company owns.

However, an additional $1 million is needed to fund all of the necessary work for the center.

The lone negative in the Skylight financial report was a 10 percent decline in ticket sales last season. That is most likely due to the late start the company got in selling tickets, a delay caused by the management brouhaha.

Free outdoor cabaret performances are being offered by the Skylight from 6:30 to 8 p.m. every Tuesday in August at Catalano Square, across the street from the Broadway Theatre Center. Shows will represent the company's range of programing, from opera to Broadway.

The series will culminate Aug. 31 with a large open house featuring a 2010-11 season preview and guided tours of the Broadway Theatre Center. Audiences are invited to picnic in the square for the cabaret performances and open house.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.