Theater review by Alex Huntsberger
The centerpiece of Gary Griffin’s pleasing and unsettling new production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods is a large, unruly tree that seems to have punched up straight through the piano in the middle of the stage. Like the show itself, a medley and deconstruction of children’s fairy tales, this unruly hunk of flora will not be told where it can and can’t grow. Griffin’s production, presented in the round, maximizes the story’s potential for chaos.
Michael Mahler and Brianna Borger play the Baker and the Baker’s Wife, who have been rendered childless by a Witch (Bethany Thomas). To lift this curse, they must find four items—a quest that leads them into contact with Cinderella (Ximone Rose), Little Red Riding Hood (Lucy Godínez), Rapunzel (Cecilia Iole) and a pre-beanstalk Jack (Ben Barker). Everyone’s stories intertwine, under the watchful eye of a smarmily officious narrator (Michael Halberstam), leading to an Act I finale that promises happiness ever after. But Act Two brings a host of complications, consequences and compromises. As a grieving giantess stomps through the kingdom, Lapine and Sondheim’s characters are faced with choices that upend their fantasy lives.
Music director and orchestrator Matt Deitchman has reconceived Sondheim’s sublimely thorny score for a four-person band, a minimalist turn that crystallizes the elegance of the knotty tunes. Although Griffin’s approach to the staging is not always effective—there are scenes stuffed in odd corners, and muddled stage pictures at key moments—that’s nothing the game and talented cast can’t overcome. The main performers act and sing beautifully, and imbue their songs with compelling emotional shades; Godínez and Rose are especially strong, and Thomas’s blow-the-house-down rendition of “Last Midnight” is the evening’s standout. Mahler and Borger humbly carry the show on their shoulders as it pings from giddy joy to bloody disaster.
Some shows hit big and fade quickly, but Into the Woods has only gotten better with age; Sondheim and Lapine’s prankish yet empathetic brand of worldliness shines through the show’s darkness like a beacon. In a world that seems to grow more complicated by the second—in which unintended consequences make it seems impossible to separate good from bad—it seems unlikely that this masterpiece will ever seem out of date.
Writer’s Theatre. Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by James Lapine. Directed by Gary Griffin. With Michael Mahler, Brianna Borger, Bethany Thomas. Running time: 2hrs 40mins. One intermission.