Enchantment awaits those who enter Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim’s wildly inventive, darkly comic thicket of life lessons sprung from children’s fairy tales in a new revival at Ford’s Theatre.
Sondheim and book writer James Lapine have packed the show to the gills with ideas about wish fulfillment and its consequences, the relationship between parents and their children and the awareness that existence is both struggle and reward. These woods are a stand-in for the experience of life itself, of course, with all its bounty and tragedy and lack of a clear way. But this forest emits glorious music as a guide—in typical Sondheim fashion, the score is polyphonic and exuberant, the lyrics are gleefully clever, and the shallowest pools conceal great depth.
The production is further blessed with an excellent ensemble; beautiful, clear singing from all (Erin Driscoll, Awa Sal Secka and Rachel Zampelli stand out); and stellar scenic and design work investing all the make-believe with the requisite liveliness (especially impressive on Ford’s limited stage).
At the heart of the story, an infertile baker (Evan Casey) and his wife (Awa Sal Secka)—in two of the strongest performances for their tenderness—wish for a child, setting them on a quest into the woods where they encounter a cavalcade of characters from the pages of the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault, each one driven by a desire of their own.
These woods are full and there’s a lot going on. Too much, as it turns out (the story and the show start to unravel in Act Two), but here’s a brief primer, some of which you’ll recognize: Cinderella (Erin Driscoll) yearns to go to the ball, but isn’t really sure about the Prince (Christopher Mueller) who chases her through the forest more than once; Jack trades his cow for magic beans, which once planted allow him access to giants in the sky and their treasure; Little Red Ridinghood (Jade Jones) visits her grandmother and attracts the lascivious attention of a big bad wolf (Mueller, again); the golden-haired Rapunzel (Quynh-My Luu) is locked away in a tower by her protective mother, the same Witch (Rachel Zampelli) who cursed the Baker’s family with childlessness.
There are a few more characters, including a Mysterious Man (Scott Sedar) who turns up at will; another Prince (Hasani Allen) with an ear for Rapunzel; and the Narrator (Sedar, again, costumed as a National Park Service ranger in a nod to the historic Ford’s Theatre site), because without him, who would let us know that Once Upon a Time…
The whole lot crisscross each other in the woods, helping and harming one another and eventually break the curse, and live happily ever… no wait that’s just Act One. Real life doesn’t come with storybook endings and Act Two gets hairy with trauma and catastrophe but also enlightenment, connection and acceptance.
Into the Woods
closes May 16, 2019
Details and tickets
There’s an overabundance of dramaturgy to wade through, and it begins to drag down the show. It’s fun to do the Bruno Bettelheim psychoanalysis bit and pick out connective themes from fairy-tale symbolism, and the dissatisfaction with wish fulfillment is an obvious theme, but then new and bigger crises and convolutions are introduced after the intermission.
The last scenes and songs comprise, among other ideas, a paean to passing on wisdom and morality to the next generation, understanding the connectedness of all humanity and engaging life’s choices with confidence and courage. It’s OK to know that the world is not good vs. evil, but something much more complex, gnarled and murky as the titular wilderness itself. “Witches can be right…Giants can be good…You decide what’s right…You decide what’s good,” the characters exclaim. Intellectually, the show pulls in many directions.
[adsanity_rotating align=”aligncenter” time=”10″ group_id=”1455″ /]
But let’s talk about the songs. There are so many highlights among this bounty of riches. Composed by Sondheim, with original arrangements orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick and performed by conducter and musical director William Yanesh and an eight-member orchestra, the music and lyrics both tickle and astound and are liable to carry you away on a bed of charms.
“Into the Woods,” the ambitious prologue song, is one of Sondheim’s most brilliant and memorable, as it courses over the first extended scene, introducing the main characters and their dilemmas. It surprisingly includes a rap performed by Zampelli (“Rooting through my rutabaga…Raiding my arugula”), years ahead of what Lin-Manuel Miranda would later do. That’s followed by the fantastic meeting between Little Red Ridinghood and the Wolf (“Hello, Little Girl”) in which Mueller (creeping around on stilts!) thirstily croons “There’s no possible way…to describe what you feel…when you’re talking to your meal.”
Cinderella expresses her reticence about the prince in “A Very Nice Prince,” and again outlines her romantic indecision in “On the Steps of the Palace.” Young Jack realizes the world is bigger and more wonderful than he ever knew in “Giants in the Sky,” and the princes display their “Agony” in the funniest scene of the show.
The singing all around is fantastic but Driscoll’s soprano is angelic. Mueller has got to be having the most fun onstage in two delightful turns, first as the lascivious wolf, and then nailing both the performance and the singing voice of the fatuous prince. The duets with his royal brother Hasani Allen are wonderfully silly.
Zampelli is another standout. The witch’s costuming is a bit of a miss in Act One, but she sings strongly in “Our Little World” and “Stay with Me” and caricatures the part of the crookbacked hag well enough. It’s a treat to see her post-transformation however; the upgraded robes are a nice touch and her cool, disapproving take on events is fun to watch.
Secka shines in the pivotal “Moments in the Woods,” the highlight solo of the production, in which the Baker’s Wife dissects her responsibility to balance between the “or” and the “and” in her life. Driscoll leads a lovely rendition of “No One is Alone,” to close the show.
The production design depicting the magical world of witchcraft, granny-eating wolves and giants is superb—the set by Milagros Ponce de León is a work of wonder, Wade Laboissonniere’s costumes are appealing and Clint Allen’s projections hit the mark, especially in a critical scene.
And director Peter Flynn and choreographer Michael Bobbitt deserve much credit for keeping the large cast moving seamlessly through the plot’s many physical and metaphorical twists and turns.
Ford Theatre’s spirited Into the Woods is as bright and smart a revival as one could wish for. Sondheim’s effulgent fairy tale for grownups runs long and tries to tackle more than it can handle, but it’s still an amusement park of fun.
Into the Woods. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by James Lapine. Directed by Peter Flynn. Original orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Orchestrations by Kim Scharnberg. Music direction by William Yanesh. Choreographed by Michael Bobbitt. Featuring Hasani Allen, Evan Casey, Tiziano D’Affuso, Wyn Delano, Erin Driscoll, Maria Egler, Rayanne Gonzales, Jade Jones, Ashleigh King, Quynh-My Luu, Justine “Icy” Moral, Christopher Mueller, Christopher Michael Richardson, Awa Sal Secka, Scott Sedar, Karen Vincent, Sam Nour Younes, and Rachel Zampelli. Scenic design by Milagros Ponce de Leon. Costume design by Wade Laboissonniere. Lighting design by Rui Rita. Sound design by David Budries. Projection design by Clint Allen. Hair and makeup design by Anne Nesmith. Stage managed by Craig A. Horness. Produced by Ford’s Theatre. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.