It may seem odd that a musical about a journey through the woods is set in a library, but thanks to an imaginative set by scenic designer Steven Royal and creative directing by Evan Hoffmann, NextStop’s staging of Into the Woods is a true delight, losing nothing in its interpretation of Stephen Sondheim’s Tony-winning musical.
In fairy tales, characters live happily ever after, but the book of Into the Woods, written by James Lapine, explores what happens when fairy tales go awry. “Careful the things you say,” advises one telling line in the musical. “Children will listen.”
The story begins in the words of a Narrator (a winning Ryan Manning), who introduces the audience to the cast of characters. There’s The Baker and his Wife, who are unable to bare a child due to a spell their neighboring witch placed on their household long ago; then there are familiar fairy tale heroes and heroines such as Cinderella, Jack of Beanstalk fame, Jack’s mom, Rapunzel, Little Red (and her hood), the Wolf and Granny.
Eventually, everyone meanders through the woods in search of wishes and dreams.
Of most importance is the journey of the Baker and his wife, who must find four objects off a list that the Witch gives them in order to break the spell so they can have a child. The items are a Slipper As Pure As Gold (obtained from Cinderella), A Cow As White As Milk (from Jack), A Cape As Red As Blood (from Little Red), and Hair As Yellow As Corn (from Rapunzel). Together, these ingredients will form a potion.
The whole First Act is dedicated to the challenges of rushing after that which your heart most desires and, by its end, Brothers Grimm would be proud. All the characters have found what they were looking for in the woods and the musical appears to be over, as they all sing a happily ever after finale. In fact, I heard several audience members questioning if there really was an Act II.
But those who know Into the Woods understand the complexity of the musical and how Act II plays with the “be careful what you wish for” mantra and looks at the consequences of what getting your wish truly means. The layers and intricacies is what makes the story such an interesting one.
With a cast of 18 playing 20 characters, Hoffmann has his hands full maneuvering everyone in the small black box theater. He had the timing of the comings and goings down perfectly. Hoffmann created a great deal of action (credit also goes to choreographer Lorraine Magee) and worked the library setting nicely into the story. Books were used to personify Cinderella’s chirping bird friends; a book cart took the place of Jack’s cow; and even the hen that lays the golden eggs came to life thanks to a book’s cover.
His choice to have everyone gather around and read storybooks by the play’s end was a great touch and really drove the point of Into the Woods home.
The cast is exceptional. As The Baker, John Loughney approaches the show’s most emotionally complex character from just the right angle, bringing out all the character’s vulnerability and charm. Katie McManus as the Baker’s Wife is of strong voice and combines a great mix of humor and desperation during her journey. As the Witch, Priscilla Cuellar cast a spell over the audience with her haunting tunes, “Stay With Me” and “Last Midnight.”
Another standout was Brittany Martz, who delivers a lovely voice, great comic timing and an ingénue spirit to Cinderella. She was particularly memorable in the beautiful “No One Is Alone” ballad near the end of the musical.
INTO THE WOODS
Closes June 1, 2014
NextStop Theatre Company at
Industrial Strength Theatre
269 Sunset Business Park
2 hours, 25 minutes with 1 intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
Speaking of laughs, the trio of Jennifer Lambert, Laura Fontaine and Jaclyn Young are a hoot as Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters. Props also go out to Nora Polka bringing a devilish flair to the tough and determined Little Red Riding Hood, Sean McComas as the lovable, yet naïve Jack, and Manning as the Narrator.
Following in the tradition of using a notable star for a voiceover for Into the Woods, a recording of the voice of Kathy Lee Gifford is used for the Giant’s wife, and it’s a wise choice. In what could have seemed cartoonish, Gifford delivers a very powerful and frightening cry and it comes off well.
The themes and dark turns may be a little scary for some, but I brought along my 8-year-old daughter Cassidy and she absolutely loved it—and appreciated that it didn’t go where expected.
The music is as infectious as any Sondheim work, so you’ll most likely be singing the familiar phrase of “Into the Woods…” for days on end, but the happy tune should also keep you smiling along. So, get ready for a journey you won’t forget.
Into the Woods . Book by James Lapine . Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim . Directed by Evan Hoffmann . Music Direction by Elisa Rosman . Choreography by Lorraine Magee . Featuring Priscilla Cuellar, John Loughney, Laura Fontaine, Scott Gaines, Scott Harrison, Jennifer Lambert, Ryan Manning, Brittany Martz, Sean McComas, Katie McManus, Lynn Audrey Neal, Nora Palka, Allizon Reggioli, Michael Sherman, Suzanne Stanley, Danny Tippet and Jaclyn Young. Set design: Steven Royal . Lighting design: Frank Coleman . Costume design: Kathy Dunlap . Properties design: Sierra Banack . Production Stage Manager: Joan Lada. Produced by NextStop Theatre Company . Reviewed by Keith Loria.