Into The Woods

At the Writers (Nichols) Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Glencoe – Musical theater fans sometimes can be divided into two groups, those who love Stephen Sondheim and those who find his stories obscure and arty his music tuneless. Sondheim’s supporters will receive the Writers Theatre revival of “Into the Woods” joyously. Even the composer’s detractors should be swept away by the brilliance of the Writers production, a red letter staging in this theater’s illustrious history.

Sondheim, assisted by lyricist-book writer James Lapine, takes as his inspiration several classic fairy tales, most of them by the Grimm brothers. The show is crowded, and at times overcrowded, with appearances by Jack (of beanstalk fame), Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Snow White, along with miscellaneous supporting characters and a duo new to the fairy tale canon, the baker and his wife. There is also a witch, a mysterious stranger unexplained until late in the show, and a narrator dressed in modern clothes.

In the abundance of plots and subplots, three stand out, interweaving with each other and the multitude of other fairy tale figures (the production uses a massive 18-member cast to handle all the characters, a few playing double roles). One of the three involves the baker and his wife and their urgent desire to have a child. That’s a theme originated by Sondheim and Lapine. Cinderella and Jack emerge from the Grimm tradition.

Photo Credit – Michael Brosilow

The baker and his wife can’t have a baby unless they satisfy the demands of the Witch, who lives next door. The Witch demands four objects, which she needs for her own survival. They are a slipper like the one worn by Cinderella, a red cloak like the one worn by Little Red Riding Hood, golden hair like the braid worn by Rapunzel, and a cow like the one Jack owns. The show gets a delightful bit of comic mileage from the appearance of the cow, dressed in white fabric and one of the numerous visual conceits that enhance the production.

The baker’s quest for the four objects connects several of the characters but there still is plenty of narrative action from the remaining characters, like the two smug young princes who confidently woo Cinderella and Rapunzel and sing the comic duet “Agony” with great flourish.

Not the least of director Gary Griffin’s many achievements is playing traffic cop in manipulating the comings and goings of the many characters who dash with precision timing across the stage and up and down the aisles.

The musical is divided into two acts, the first leaning heavily on humor and whimsy, though for all its charm and joking the authors find time for a couple of bloody body mutilations, some characters being blinded, and a disembowelment. Readers familiar with Grimm’s fairy tales know that the brothers did not stint on pain and gore.

The second act turns much darker. The action turns menacing and violent after Jack kills the giant living atop the beanstalk and the creature’s giant wife comes down to avenge the death of her husband, eventually causing the death of most of the characters. The show ends with a bit of sentimentality sung by the survivors suggesting that we are not alone in life and that we should be careful what we say because children will listen. There is also a brief coda added that must not be revealed in advance.

This being a Sondheim show, there are elusive threads in the story. The woods have a symbolic meaning that the viewers may be frustrated trying to parse out. There are numerous symbolic and allegorical injections that touch on the importance of community and family as well as moral ambivalence, self interest, bravery, betrayal, disillusion, and finally a hard earned optimism for the future. It’s this kind of vague psychological and emotional undercurrent that irritates the anti-Sondheimians. They would prefer that the man say what he means rather than tease us with elusive allusions that seem significant but just tease the audience with their ambiguity. Supporters might counter that Sondheim should be credited with creating a tapestry of subtle inferences that enrich the viewing experience. It should be emphasized that while “Into the Woods” is a fairy tale, it isn’t a children’s show and is best suited to high school ages and up.

          Photo Credit – Michael Brosilow

The ensemble includes performers from the A list of Chicagoland music theater. Every actor in the show is no less than excellent and some are exceptional. First among equals is Bethany Thomas, who wins the audience in the first act as the comically menacing Witch in her grubby garb, and then is transformed by a stylish outfit in the second, topping her scintillating performance with her fierce “Last Midnight” aria that sent chills through the listener. Thomas has been visible in area theater for years and this performance affirms that we have a superstar in our midst.

The production also prospers from terrific performances by Michael Mahler as the baker and really stunning work by Brianna Borger as the baker’s wife. Lucy Godinez takes a step up the ladder of area stars with her performance as a delightfully teen age Little Red Riding Hood. But it’s only right that everyone in the ensemble gets a shout out for their singing and acting, so here they are, in random order—Ben Barker (Jack), McKinley Carter (Jack’s mother), Ximone Rose (Cinderella), Kelli Harrington (Cinderella’s Stepmother), Molly Hernandez and Nicole Arnold (Cinderella’s sisters), Harriet Nzinga Plumpp (Cinderella’s mother), Matt Edmonds (in a great wolf’s costume), Alex Benoit and Ryan McBride (the two princes), Mary Poole (a droll comic cameo as Milky White the cow), Cecilia Iole as the much put upon Rapunzel, Writers Theater artistic director Michael Halberstam in a very smooth turn as the narrator, and William Brown as the Mysterious Man (Jonathan Weir takes over the role starting September 17).

The Broadway versions of “Into the Woods” relied heavily on striking visual effects to establish the fairy tale mood of the piece. The Nichols Theatre is a comparatively intimate space that doesn’t allow for much scenery in its present in-the-round configuration. Scott Davis has created a basic rustic setting but the heroes of the show are costume designer Mara Blumenfeld, lighting designer Lee Fiskness, and sound designer Christopher LaPorte. Using the high tech opportunities provided by the new Nicholas Theatre, the designers have created a striking fairy tale world set in the early 19th century rural Europe of the Grimm brothers time.

Blumenfeld is especially triumphant in outfitting the Witch in a clutter of raggedy fabrics. The two princes are properly royal in their snazzy uniforms, and Little Red Riding Hood looks sharp in her brilliant red cape and in a garment made from the wolf’s pelt. The costume budget for this production must be impressive. The Fiskness lighting plan creates shadowy and scary corners of the theater and teams up with LePorte’s sound to evoke the terrifying presence of the vengeful giant wreaking havoc on the community below the bean stalk. A three piece on stage combo provides impressively full orchestra sound accompaniment. The instrumentalists consist of pianist-conductor Charlotte Rivard-Hoster, Jeff Handley or Brandon Podjasek on percussion, and Mike Matlock on woodwinds.

The Writers revival is so well staged and performed that it almost entirely masks the musical’s chief faults—the show is too long, the score and the book often don’t connect, the humor is sometimes sophomoric, and the sentimentality is too gooey. But in the presence of all the talent on stage and behind the scenes at the Writer, even the most unyielding Sondheim resister has to concede that this is an exceptional artistic achievement.

The show gets a rating of

“Into the Woods” runs through September 22 at the Writers (Nichols)) Theatre, 325 Tudor Court. Most performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 6 p.m. Tickets are $35 to $80. Call 847 242 6000 or visit www.writerstheatre.org.

Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com.

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