Smile Politely

An enchanting trip Into the Woods

Last weekend, in its final production of the 2014-2015 season, Lyric Theatre presented Stephen Sondheim’s much-ballyhooed Into the Woods. For those who might be unfamiliar with this stage musical (or its recent Hollywood film treatment), imagine most of the protagonists from the popular fairy tales of our youth dropped into a single intersecting storyline. Add some adult themes, an omniscient narrator, some insanely catchy tunes, and hit “puree.”

Even with my limited knowledge of musicals, Sondheim has always loomed large. West Side Story, Assassins, Sunday in the Park with George, Sweeney Todd…? It’s very difficult to know anything about theatre without knowing some Sondheim. Somehow, though, I had managed to go forty years without ever hearing a single song from Into the Woods. I knew the premise, of course, but I must have been distracted by something shiny on the innumerable occasions that the theatre friends of my youth played the cast recording.

It was my loss.

Sondheim’s delightfully twisted lyrics, flowing from the mouths of such talented singers and actors made for a thrilling evening, and I only wish the production had run longer so that others might have had the same opportunity to enjoy it.

Some highlights:

  • The Baker and his Wife (played by Adrian Sanchez and Mindy Shore, respectively), in their quest to have a child, created the show’s emotional core and many of the show’s biggest laughs. Both actors have a gift for physical comedy, and their chemistry made for a memorable pairing.
  • Sara Freedland’s Little Red Ridinghood brought a bit of a jagged edge to the proceedings, all cocky impertinence and caustic sarcasm. She was especially effective after her encounter with the Wolf (a double-cast Anson Woodin), whose song “Hello Little Girl” is as unsettlingly molest-y as can be.
  • The Princes (Woodin and Edward Brennan) belting out their mutual “Agony” with a complete lack of homophobic bro-ness.

These are just a few among the many high points. There are other amazing voices in the cast, including those belonging to Elenora Benedict (songbird-like as Cinderella), Maggie Blackburn (operatic as a very underutilized Rapunzel), and Aaron Godwin (striking a nebbishy Rent vibe as Jack, of “And the Beanstalk” fame). Seriously, there isn’t a weak voice or portrayal here. And even the smallest parts were played to the hilt by fully committed performers.

The show, as written, is incredibly entertaining, if perhaps a little overwritten. I had heard, in my travels, of a tendency among theatre companies to strike the second act of the show and present only Act One. At the time, in my vacuum-like existence, it seemed ridiculous to me. The very idea that anyone would simply ignore the second half of a play or musical made my brain fold in on itself like a lawn chair.

Having seen the musical in its entirety, I have to say: I kind of see their point. Don’t get me wrong — there are some good songs in Act Two. There is, for example, a steamy encounter between the Baker’s Wife and one of the Princes that brilliantly dances across the line between funny and sexy. And the two Princes do get to reprise their song “Agony.” Still and all, Act Two is a bit of a shaggy dog. The plotlines and characterizations grow darker, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, but there is a jumbled, lurching quality to the storytelling that dulls the sharpness and near seamlessness of the previous act.

That having been said, Jessi D. Hill’s take on Into the Woods was smart and highly enjoyable. She definitely seemed to have instilled an urgency in her cast to find the people they played and not just the caricatures, and each showed a personality that went well beyond belting out show tunes. The orchestra, under the direction of Louis Bergonzi, was also right on the money, creating a blend of music and voice that floated as often as it shook the walls.

As I watched the action unfold, flowing across the deceptively simple raked stage designed by Joe C. Klug, it occurred to me that the bareness — the etched whiteness — of the stage captured the pages of a storybook expertly. And I suppose it’s redundant, when discussing a famous musical about fairy tale characters, to say that the costumes (by designer Kim Curtis, with hair and makeup by David Mounce) were gorgeous — but they really were gorgeous. From Rapunzel’s layer cake of a dress to the Witch’s garden-inspired weave of weeds, each outfit made its own statement and told you exactly who was wearing it.

I have seen a number of excellent productions over the past season, and I cannot think of a better way to conclude a very strong season at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Those of you reading this, if you didn’t get to see Into the Woods, don’t know what you missed. They might not have all lived Happily Ever After, but the audience heard a tale well told.

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