Into the Woods
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine
Directed by Mark Lamos
Through April 15 at Center Stage
The lights came up on opening night of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, and the top-hatted narrator strode on stage, his shadow long and sinister. But just as the cast prepared to launch into its first rendition of the musical’s central song, a little boy in the audience suddenly and repeatedly cried out, “I don’t wanna watch this! I wanna go home!” His parents apparently didn’t get the memo: Into the Woods, particularly the full-length version, is not as kid-friendly as its fairy-tale characters might suggest. (For families with young children, Center Stage is presenting two shows consisting of just the first act. Visit centerstage.org for more information.)
Despite the ill-timed interruption, cast and crew managed to put on a fantastic, only mildly flawed show. As befits Sondheim’s beloved send-up of the fairy-tale genre, the tone of this production—produced in concert with Westport Country Playhouse—is wry, knowing, and rife with sexual innuendo. Some small missteps marred opening night: A piece of the set was rolled in backward once, a few lines were fumbled, microphones periodically faded in and out. And a few of the staging choices—like the digitally enhanced, seemingly AutoTuned voices of the more menacing characters—leaned too heavily on spectacle rather than on the quality of performance. But these were only surface blemishes in a funny, thought-provoking production.
Into the Woods takes the main characters from the Brothers Grimm fairy tales “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Rapunzel,” and “Cinderella” and jumbles them together, adding a story about a baker and his wife. Each character is in pursuit of something—wealth, true love, a child—and by the end of the first act, as is inevitable in fairy tales, most have won their heart’s desires. The second act examines what comes after happily ever after. Here the characters, and the audience, must face the dark side of human nature and the less-than-pat moral quandaries of adulthood, when we so often long precisely for that which we do not have.
Director Mark Lamos notes in the program that he took some of his staging cues from 19th-century German fabulist E.T.A. Hoffman, who wrote the story on which The Nutcracker is based. The characters in this production of Into the Woods are clearly framed much like the toys that come to life in Hoffman’s story. A small toy theater that mimics the larger set, sometimes populated by models of the characters, sits stage left through much of the action. And here and there the narrator appears and with a sweep of the hands renders the real-life characters motionless and limp, hammering home the point that he is essentially a puppet master. It’s a witty device and one that emphasizes the distance between the narrator and the other characters (making it all the more jarring when they turn on him in Act II).
The set is also a reminder that Into the Woods is, fundamentally, a caricature of a caricature. Two-dimensional flats are rolled in and out with scene changes, and the houses of the characters are less than half their height. A classic painted archway frames all, like the predictable fairy-tale form itself. But when the Giant comes to wreak havoc in Act II, set pieces, including the arch itself, topple and lean. In place of a painted hillside town, the backdrop is now the barren, water-stained back wall of the stage, the loss of illusion literally made concrete.
But it is of course the cast that brings the production fully to life, and several performances are worthy of special note. Danielle Ferland, who played Little Red Riding Hood in the original 1987 Broadway production, returns here as the Baker’s Wife and plays the role to its frumpy, hen-pecking hilt. Lauren Kennedy is a winning Witch, with a tongue that flicks out like a lizard’s and an all-too-human case of vanity. Kennedy also has one of the most striking voices in the cast, particularly when she sings “Stay With Me,” a soaring mother’s lament for the dangers her adopted daughter, Rapunzel, must face in the real world.
But it is Dana Steingold as Little Red Riding Hood who steals the show. A petite woman with a babyish voice, voluminous white petticoats, and a deadpan delivery, Steingold perfectly captures the character’s subtle blend of childlike innocence and jaded languor. The scenes between her and the Wolf, a delightfully carnal Nik Walker, are easily the best in the show. Walker—in black leather boots and tight pants, with a long gray tail, beard, and hair—twitches his pelvis and his tail, a seductive lupine molester, all the while singing to himself of the meal ahead. “There’s no possible way/ To describe what you feel/ When you’re talking to your meal,” he croons, crouching low and howling as he departs. (It’s disappointing when the Wolf is slaughtered, but Walker is equally charming, selfish, and rakish as Cinderella’s Prince.)
Music director Wayne Barker, who was music director for Center Stage’s riveting production of Caroline, or Change several years ago, does stellar work here as well. Sondheim’s witty, convoluted lyrics come fully to life in his hands and the orchestra often becomes a stand-in for the narrator, à la Peter and the Wolf. As Cinderella’s Prince seduces the Baker’s Wife, the music comes in and out depending on whether the characters are falling prey to illusion or standing firmly in reality. “Of course, you’re right, how foolish,” the Prince says in the silence, as the Baker’s Wife resists his advances. The music swells. “Foolishness can happen in the woods. . .” he sings loftily, once more advancing. It’s a hilarious scene, made doubly so by the impeccable timing of the orchestra.
All in all, this production of Into the Woods is a wonderful way to spend an evening—provided, of course, that you’ve arranged for a babysitter.