Review: ‘Into the Woods’

Bethany Thomas as the Witch in “Into the Woods. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Where: Writers Theatre Nichols
Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
When: through Sept. 22
Tickets: $55-$80
Phone: 847-242-6000

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Into the Woods,” which premiered on Broadway in 1987, has never been near the top of my list of favorite musicals.

Until now.

Writers Theatre’s intimate production, superbly directed by Gary Griffin and staged nearly in the round in the reconfigured Nichols Theatre, illuminates Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine’s (book) pairing of iconic fairy tales and real-life problems in surprisingly moving ways.

Although at first it may seem like “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Cinderella,” and “Rapunzel” have little to do with the fraught relationships between parents and children or married couples, Griffin and his stellar cast explore the correlations in Lapine’s fractured interwoven stories and Sondheim’s emotionally resonant songs, bringing out myriad dimensions of love, loss, and longing, as well as the lightness and humor.

They’re helped immensely by the costumed three-piece band—conductor/pianist Charlotte Rivard-Hoster, percussionist Jeff Handley (Brandon Podjasek after Sept. 1), and woodwinds player Mike Matlock—performing music director Matt Deitchman’s sensitive re-orchestrations of Jonathan Tunick’s originals. Rivard-Hoster’s piano, impaled by a thick tree trunk, even is part of Scott Davis’ scenic design featuring a forest of hanging paraphernalia evocatively lit by Lee Fiskness, whose effects scarily combine with the quaking set and Christopher M. LaPorte’s sound design when the giant arrives in the land.

That’s not until Act II, however, which deals with the realistic consequences of the generally selfish choices the characters make in Act 1. And while the first act, unlike Disney movies, includes some of the darker elements from the tales of the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault, the resolution is “happily ever after,” at least for most.

The fairly tale linking the others together is totally invented by Lapine and Sondheim. The Baker (Michael Mahler) and the Baker’s Wife (Brianna Borger), perfectly matched here, desperately want to have a child, but they’ve been cursed by the Witch (Bethany Thomas) next door because the baker’s father stole vegetables and “magic” beans from her garden when his wife was pregnant. The Witch shows up and tells them she’ll lift the curse if they bring her four items in three days: “the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold.”

This sends the couple into the woods on a quest that starts with them squabbling but gradually finds them co-operating. Once there, they encounter Jack (Ben Barker), who has been sent to the market by his Mother (McKinley Carter) to sell his beloved cow, Milky White (Mary Poole, an expressive departure from the inanimate object usually used), and sweet-roll-loving Little Red (Lucy Godinez) on her way to and from Granny’s (Harriet Nzinga Plumpp) and being seduced by the Wolf (Matt Edmonds, definitely predatory but less sexual than is often the case).

Cinderella (Ximone Rose), much abused by her Stepmother (Kelli Harrington) and stepsisters (Nicole Arnold, Molly Hernandez), initially enters the woods to visit the grave of her mother (Plumpp), whose spirit gives her a ball gown and golden slippers so she can go to the festival. The Baker’s Wife meets her fleeing from the Prince (Ryan McBride) who is pursuing her, even as she realizes that the royal attention is not what she expected. The Baker’s Wife also is the one who gets the hair as yellow as corn from Rapunzel (Cecilia Iole), who has been kept isolated in a tower by her mother, the Witch–that is until she’s discovered by the second Prince (Alex Benoit). When the Witch finds out about the affair, she banishes Rapunzel, who she actually took from the Baker’s parents, to even worse isolation.

Michael Mahler and Brianna Borger as the Baker and the Baker’s Wife in “Into the Woods.” (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

The other pivotal characters are the Mysterious Man (William Brown; Jonathan Weir starting Sept. 17), who dispenses dubious words of wisdom and seems to want to help the Baker, and the Narrator (Artistic Director Michael Halberstam, returning to the stage after 17 years), our guide for part of the journey.

The more-or-less happy outcome of Act 1 hinges on the involvement of the Baker and his Wife in the other tales. Jack trades Milky White for the Baker’s magic beans that grow into the beanstalk enabling him to climb to the Giant in the sky and steal the gold, golden harp, and goose that laid the golden egg. Little Red gives the Baker her cape after he saves her and Granny from the Wolf’s belly. Details from a few other fairy tales also get thrown into the mix. In Act 2, danger and destruction prevail, and the characters go back into the woods to try to rectify the situation with mixed results that leave the survivors sadder and possibly wiser.

The entire ensemble is excellent, but the comic highlight for me is the duet, “Agony,” between the two perfectly cast Princes. In the first act, they competitively describe the thrill and exquisite pain of longing for their unattainable beloveds. By the second act reprise, they’ve tired of these wives and have fallen in love with Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, who are perpetually out of reach because…well, they’re sleeping.

Thomas’ Witch is a force of nature with a commanding voice, and her plea to Rapunzel, “Stay With Me,” brought me to tears. She also nails her “Lament,” the forcefully cautionary “Last Midnight,” and the thematically crucial “Children Will Listen” that Griffin turns into an unusual finale. Other standouts range from Mahler, whose Baker is very sympathetic in his vulnerability and desire to do good, and Rose, who brings real depth and self-awareness to Cinderella.

The other technical aspects of the show are first rate, among them Mara Bleumenfeld’s costumes, some of which are quite inventive. The in-the-round configuration works so well for “Into the Woods,” I hope Writers considers it for more productions.