A big-screen adaption of the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine Broadway classic Into the Woods is scheduled to be released this Christmas, but that had little to do with NextStop Theatre Company’s choice for closing its first season.
“It’s completely a coincidence,” says the theater’s artistic director Evan Hoffmann, who is tackling only the third Sondheim musical in the combined 25-year history of NextStop and The Elden Street Players, from which NextStop’s professional company was formed last year. “They have been talking about making a movie for years, so when we picked the show, it wasn’t a conscious decision, and a couple of months later they announced that Meryl Streep would be starring in the movie.”
Hoffmann feels the hype surrounding the movie—which also stars Johnny Depp and Anna Kendrick—may help bring a little more attention to the production, as people may want to see it on stage before heading to the movies.
“I’m glad we are happening before the movie. Movie musicals rarely have the same impact and it will be a very different animal in how it introduces people to the story,” he says. “I would almost always rather see a musical on a stage.”
The beauty of the show is that it includes a plethora of fairy tale characters who the audience is already familiar with—Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack from Beanstalk fame—and places them in situations that make the stories new, à la ABC’s hit show, Once Upon a Time.
“I think it strikes a remarkably good balance between the familiar and the new,” Hoffmann says. “It’s a very inviting show for both artists and patrons, because they can recognize characters from fairy tales they are comfortable with.”
Hoffmann has been a part of two productions of the Tony-winning musical in the past. While in high school, he played Jack in a community theater production in Loudon County, and in 2007, understudied both Princes in Signature’s acclaimed production.
Into the Woods is one of those rare shows that was filmed and broadcast on television so millions of people have already seen the original Broadway production featuring Chip Zien, Joanna Gleason and Bernadette Peters.
“I distinctly remember when I was 12 years old, watching Into the Woods on PBS and thinking, ‘this is amazing.’ It’s very iconic to a lot of people,” Hoffmann says. “I think a lot of people of my generation—I’m not quite 32—who grew up loving musical theater, largely learned to love Sondheim because so many of his shows were video recorded and broadcast.”
Hoffmann believes that because of the specific ideas in people’s minds about what the show should look like it, producing it can be intimidating. Still, it hasn’t stopped him from putting his own stamp on the production.
“We very much explore some of the darker tones in the show,” he says. “Obviously, Act II takes a turn for the much more macabre in some of the things that happen. One of the things I have seen being a problem is the disconnect in tone between the two acts, so we tried to really look for the darker nature in Act I, which is there, but frequently gets glossed over as funny anecdotes.”
A large part of NextStop’s re-imagination of Into the Woods is that Hoffmann has set the action in a two-story library, rather than the literal woods that the Broadway production has utilized as its setting.
“There’s no forest in our theater. We use a library as the setting to tie more specifically into the storytelling aspect,” he says. “The show is about the cost and consequences of ‘I wish’ and we wanted to show that without having them prancing about though the woods.”
“Our cast is unbelievable with a great mixture of people who have worked with us before and some new people with fresh perspectives on these characters,” he says. “It’s a huge production for us. It’s going to cost more than twice what any other show this season has, and I’m very confident that it will be quite the spectacle.”
With a cast of 17 and a 10-piece orchestra, there will be times when the 114-seat black box theater will have an intimacy and proximity that is unique in itself, the director says.
A treat for the audience will be Today host Kathie Lee Gifford serving as the voice of the Giant’s Wife, following in the pseudo tradition of using a recording of recognizable actresses (Angela Lansbury at Signature; Glenn Close at the Public Theater, Dame Judi Dench last Broadway revival) in the part.
Hoffmann says Gifford’s reading is “fantastic” and calls her very terrifying—just what he was looking for with the character’s voice.
“I worked with Signature as a performer for a number of shows and was part of a production of Saving Aimee, which became Scandalous, Gifford’s musical on Broadway in 2012, and she was very much an active part of that production,” Hoffmann says. “She was very sweet to me and I maintained communication with her over the years. When we were approaching the show, I thought it would be fun for our audience to find an actress who was believable as the [giant’s] wife. Seeing as she is actually married to a former Giant (former NFL player Frank Gifford), it made perfect sense.”
The NextStop Theatre Company production of Into the Woods is onstage May 1 – June 1, 2014 at Industrial Strength Theatre, 269 Sunset Business Park, Herndon, VA 20170.
Details and tickets