“Wishes Come True, Not Free”: Review of Into the Woods

Sondheim’s Into the Woods, with its incorporation of fractured fairy tales, may seem like kid’s stuff at first glance. In reality, it’s anything but.

The first act weaves together a number of familiar fairy tales through a quest narrative that involves a Baker and his wife securing a number of objects (a cape as red as blood, a slipper as pure as gold, etc.) to undo a curse, courtesy of the witch next door, which has left them childless.

The first act closes with the fulfillment of wishes for the heroes, and deserved comeuppance for the villains. However, the distinction between heroes and villains is blurred as things devolve quickly in the dark second act, when our heroes (still wishing for more) must reckon with the consequences of securing their wishes. A number of weighty themes are explored: moral relativism, isolation, loss, and parent/child relationships.

Into the Woods paints this last issue as especially bleak: whether overprotective, indifferent, or absent, parents can’t seem to avoid inflicting lasting damage on their children. Ultimately, it remains up to the individual to decide what’s morally right, though, as one of the final songs affirms, “no one is alone.”

Despite such heavy themes, Into the Woods remains a very fulfilling show; to their credit, the Playhouse cast conveys the emotional highs and lows with equal gusto. Though the performances in the first act were a bit uneven (perhaps just some bad juju?) things definitely picked up in the second half, and the cast delivered when it counted. The orchestra (under the assured baton of Blake Peterson) and singers ably tackled a notoriously difficult Sondheim score in this ambitious production.

From the opening “I Wish,” Jean Olson’s costumes help create instantly recognizable fairy tale characters: I was particularly tickled by a wicked stepsister’s delightfully over-the-top fascinator, reminiscent of one worn by Princess Beatrice of York at the recent royal wedding.

Curtis Phillips’ set design, relatively spare compared to previous productions, evokes a fairy tale setting without detracting from the intricate plot and rapid-fire lyrics. The setting for the woods includes steep steps, which require some carefully maneuvering from the actors. Rather than being a hindrance, this actually emphasizes the perils of the woods.  The initial fairy tale cottage set suggests pencil drawings in a storybook: combined with the whimsical costumes, props constructed from re-purposed/recycled materials, and a young (or, at least, very youthful-looking) cast, the show has the feel of children playing make-believe (in the best possible sense).

William Lucas (Baker) and Amanda Weis (Baker’s Wife) lend an interesting dynamic to their central characters: fresh-faced and youthful, Lucas and Weis create a believable young couple still navigating married life, an interesting departure (at least from the original Broadway production), which featured a Baker and Baker’s Wife who were considerably older. With Weis and Lucas in these roles, the spats between the married couple retain a childish petulance of newlyweds who are still adjusting to life together, rather than the familiar needling of long-married spouses. Both Weis and Lucas are accomplished singers, and deftly manage the lyrically and vocally demanding material. Though the Baker’s Wife is a bit one-dimensional in the first act, Weis lends some real pathos in her second act performance of “Moments in the Woods”.

Andrea Schmidt made quite a splash in her Playhouse debut as the Witch, a complex role that requires some powerhouse singing. Schmidt delivered: her performances of “Stay with Me” and “Witch’s Lament” are tender and heartbreaking, and “Last Midnight” struck the perfect balance of contempt, resignation, and rage. I admit that I was a little surprised that one of the other Playhouse regulars wasn’t cast as the Witch, but after seeing Schmidt’s performance, I can see why she won the role.

Kate Horvath is a delightful (and not at all surprising) casting choice as Little Red Riding Hood. Horvath’s diminutive stature and youthful voice make her a convincing Little Red, but I suspect her work with the Children’s Theatre makes her especially adept at capturing adolescent mannerisms with uncanny precision.  She taunts, she pouts, she cackles triumphantly, all with a hilarious and entirely believable effect.

Horvath has wonderfully antagonistic chemistry with Kyle Geissler (Jack), who struggled a bit vocally with his solo “Giants in the Sky,” but who plays Jack with such endearing, wide-eyed innocence that one can’t imagine a better choice to play a character marked by his “sweet, though occasionally vague, disposition.”

Jana LaPine brings the character of Cinderella down to earth. While her grief over the loss of her mother and the horrors of her home life are palpable, her habit of talking to birds and communing with her dead mother through a hazel tree at her grave keep her character slightly off-kilter.  LaPine seemed a bit tentative during her first act solos, but her confident performance of “No One is Alone” in the second act was heartrending.

Nathan St. Germain and Andy Roemhildt clearly relish their roles as the Princes, especially Roemhildt, whose nimble leaping across the stage elicited laughter from the audience every time. “Agony” and its reprise were uproariously funny, and Roemhildt and St. Germain’s performance ensured that the audience got to relish every comical lyric. Roehmildt did double duty as The Wolf, a bit of casting that underscores the notion that perhaps there really isn’t much difference between a prince and a wolf.

The rest of the supporting cast, as with most of the recent Playhouse shows, rounded things out wonderfully (a true testament to the embarrassment of riches we have in our local talent).  Ashley Matheson and Dani Stock, as Cinderella’s stepsisters, provided comic relief. Amber Goodspeed was perfection as Jack’s mother; I found myself wishing that her role was bigger, if only to enjoy her lovely singing voice more often.  Keith Shelbourne was similarly well-utilized in this production: his very distinctive style of line delivery worked to great effect as both the Narrator and the Mysterious Man.

Thinking back over a truly enjoyable season at The Playhouse (indeed, a truly enjoyable theatre season in Duluth), it occurred to me that The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and Into the Woods, both directed by Priscilla McRoberts, make fitting bookends, in that they share similar explorations of parent/child relationships. Just as the children participating in the spelling bee betray the influence of their home lives, Into the Woods features characters whose parents are overprotective (Rapunzel), absent (the Baker), abusive or indifferent (Cinderella). Both shows seem to suggest that, regardless of our childhood experiences, we can find belonging through connectedness with others, realizing that we never truly act alone.  Such connectedness and community were evident in this year’s theater season: everyone involved should be commended for their ambition, artistic vision, and commitment in bringing such high caliber entertainment to the stage. I, for one, am eagerly looking forward to next season.

What: Into the Woods
Where: The Duluth Playhouse
When: July 14th-31st, Wednesday-Saturday at 7:30 pm, Sundays at 2 pm.

*Speaking of the next season: the line-up can be found here. Which shows are you excited for? With the exceptional level of dance showcased on the Playhouse stage this year, I’m particularly anxious to see A Chorus Line. And while I was rather surprised by the inclusion of Hair, I’m looking forward to seeing the Playhouse tackle it!

1 Comment

EvilResident

about 10 years ago

Thanks for the kind words. This show has been a blast, and one of the most fun casts I have ever had the pleasure of working with.

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