Stephen Sondheim's most-produced musical, somewhat defanged

5th Avenue Theatre mounts Into the Woods, an intricate reworking of fairy tales, with many a twist. The production has marvelous moments and an excellent cast, but it steers a little too far from the dark side of Sondheim's musical imagination.
Crosscut archive image.

Michael Hunsaker as the Wolf and Ireland Woods as Little Red Ridinghood in <i>Into the Woods</i> at the 5th Avenue Theatre. (Chris Bennion)

5th Avenue Theatre mounts Into the Woods, an intricate reworking of fairy tales, with many a twist. The production has marvelous moments and an excellent cast, but it steers a little too far from the dark side of Sondheim's musical imagination.

A wish has at last been granted to local Stephen Sondheim fans. The 5th Avenue Theatre's new production of Into the Woods – billed as the musical's "professional premiere" in the region – offers the latest revival from the Sondheim canon. It's become an annual exploration, including Company and a splendidly memorable Sweeney Todd during the past two seasons. The latest production, however, hews a little too closely to a safe and well-trodden path.

Into the Woods opened on Broadway almost exactly 20 years ago. It has since gone on to become Sondheim's most-produced musical (not counting West Side Story, of course, to which he contributed the lyrics). However popular, it's also one of his most frustrating. Based on an ingenious premise and replete with inspiration in both score and lyrics, the show seriously loses traction in its uneven, talky second act. Then it recovers to deliver what must be counted among the finest moments in all of Sondheim.

Collaborator James Lapine's book brings together a number of fairy-tale characters instantly familiar from the Brothers Grimm and other sources: Cinderella and her Prince, Jack the Giant-killer, Rapunzel and the Witch, Little Red Ridinghood, and a host of associated relatives. Lapine cleverly interweaves their stories with a newly minted fairy tale about a baker and his wife who try to free themselves of a curse which has left them childless.

All of these characters cross paths as they venture "into the woods" on their respective quests. After they've gotten their wishes (here is the real twist that obviously sparked Sondheim's and Lapine's imaginations), unforeseen consequences ensue. The innocence signaled by "once upon a time" turns out to be a prelude to painful dilemmas not so easily navigated by the black-and-white moral compass of fairy tales.

Director Mark Waldrop, who oversaw a vivid staging of Gypsy at 5th Avenue several years ago, paces the lengthy first act with a sprightly momentum, but he hasn't come up with any new solutions for dealing with the sagging second act. Here Lapine's construction is at its clumsiest, overlaying dense thickets of verbiage through which Sondheim's songs have to find their way. Waldrop is hardly alone in having to face this dramaturgical hurdle. A lot of journeying has to be done before we get the payoff of Sondheim's incandescent and profoundly unsentimental lullaby, "No One is Alone."

The production dwells too close to the surface, playing up moments of comedic cutesiness, often to delightful effect, while only fitfully peering into the musical's darker corners. This Wolf, for example, comes across less as sexual predator than as stand-up comic when he stalks Little Red Ridinghood, leading to the famous lines, "There's no possible way/To describe what you feel/When you're talking to your meal."

Into the Woods is often presented as a family-friendly musical. Not unlike the original, unprettified sources of Grimm's fairy tales themselves, the musical conjures disturbing truths around marriage and parent-child bonds. Missing in this staging, I feel, are the dissonant pangs that flash through Sondheim's score. His music often lays bare with almost operatic clarity the subconscious twists and turns motivating this journey.

Sondheim blends a subtle minimalism informed by the rhythmic snap of rap with motivic ideas as intricately woven into the score's fabric as the strands of each character's story are braided together. Musical director Ian Eisendrath, leading a 15-piece band and using Jonathan Tunick's orchestration, is keenly attuned to Sondheim's sense of weight and proportion, where lush islands of lyrical repose blossom amid the strong rhythmic currents. If only 5th Avenue would avoid the jarring overamplifications.

Todd Edward Ivins's set reinforces Waldrop's relatively defanged approach. Flat storybook illustrations appropriately frame the stage, which opens to reveal tendrilly, fanciful shapes for the woods. They never really become threatening, though Tom Sturge's boldly inventive lighting soaks the scenery in some deliciously psychedelic colors. The demise of the Giant's widow, who brings mayhem to bear in the "sequel" comprising the second act, is represented by a cartoonish upturned shoe.

The largely home-grown cast features a number of performers familiar from previous Sondheim outings at 5th Avenue. Allen Fitzpatrick is right on target as the unreliable Narrator who is literally deconstructed before our eyes (this show was born, after all, in the late 1980s) and also doubles as a hauntingly importuning Mysterious Stranger. Leslie Law, among the show's standout performers, brings rich characterization to the Baker's Wife and touchingly portrays her transformations.

Bob De Dea's Baker (clad by costumer Lynda Salsbury in what might be called subdued motley) discovers an endearing combination of insecurity and pluck. He rises to the occasion in one of the score's most moving numbers ("No More") as he encounters his father's spirit. Eric Ankrim is another standout as a playfully dim-witted Jack with a dulcet tenor, while Pamela Hamill brings vocal heft to Jack's mother. Confined to pantomime and the interior of his costume, Eric Brotherson nearly steals a couple of scenes as Milky White, Jack's beloved cow.

Billie Wildrick is a self-doubting Cinderella, whose streamlined story has her mostly on the run through the woods, becoming even more vulnerable with the Prince chasing her than under her stepmother's rule. A pity the production doesn't include "Our Little World" (added for the 2002 London revival), which would allow us to hear more of Anne Eisendrath's lovely soprano as Rapunzel.

In the challenging linchpin role of the Witch, Lisa Estridge has more success in the first part as the stereotypically crooked but unconventionally rapping crone (brandishing a wonderfully carved staff). When, free of her curse, she morphs into a pink-clad diva, Estridge seems strangely unfocused, and her stage presence loses some wattage. Logan Benedict and Michael Hunsacker (who doubles as the Wolf) have a field day as prancing pasteboard cutouts of the oh-so-interchangeable Dashingly Handsome Prince, and their second-act reprise of "Agony" plays to the production's comedic strengths. Ireland Woods is a frighteningly precocious, knife-wielding Little Red Ridinghood who exchanges her blood-red cape for the disemboweled Wolf's fur.

But Into the Woods is – as its core thematic idea, "You Are Not Alone," suggests – an emphatically ensemble show. And to the production's credit, this aspect was given admirable attention. Despite individual variations in vocal quality, the cast dovetails gracefully for Sondheim's magnificently complex ensemble numbers. Their witty counterpoint of lyrics and emotional montage are Sondheim's equivalent of a great operatic ensemble set piece. Waldrop directs these with unfussy confidence, letting individual vignettes work as breadcrumbs through the labyrinth of Sondheim's larger construction.


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