By Erin Fleming
Metropolis Performing Arts Centre’s Into the Woods, the enchantingly effervescent musical fairy tale by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, ventures deep into the forest and returns with a solid hit.
The intricate (even by Sondheim standards) book and score is often as daunting to theater companies as it is delightful to theater goers, interweaving several threads from the Grimm Brothers tales into a complicated plot which reflects the moral complexity of its message about wishes, dreams, choices and consequences. Not unlike Hamilton, ITW is mostly sung, with very little spoken dialogue, and also presents well-known (if not historical, at least legendary) characters in a sort of anachronistic way, in that despite their old-timey costumes, they seem to talk and act like us.
The Tony Award winning show itself suffers from a bit of a curse. When done right, the sardonic humor in Sondheim and Lapine’s dizzyingly clever wordplay is consistent throughout and anchored by fully rendered portrayals of three-dimensional people with real problems. Unfortunately, many productions overplay the easier lightheartedness of the first half of the story and resort to superficial interpretations, which leads to a grim(m)ly overburdened second act. Director Robin Hughes artfully avoids such a fate, mostly due to the inspired casting of a well-balanced and funny ensemble featuring several vocal powerhouses.
In the first act, we meet Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack, all pursuing their traditional storybook objectives. Nicole Armold is a wonderfully sweet and sympathetic Cinderella, pining to go to the festival and enduring the bullying of her Kardashian-esque step-family, whose wickedness is expertly expressed through the physical comedy of Kara Schoenhofer, Marissa Williams and Allyssa O’Donnell. Rapunzel, nicely played by Kim Green as a typically restless and rebellious teenager, seeks escape from her tower and her mother. Anna Segatti is terrific as Little Red Riding Hood in a tricky role for an adult that sometimes comes off as annoyingly bratty. On the contrary, Segatti’s comedic chops and genuine likeability serve her well as she deals with a big, bad wolf on her quest to help Granny. Jack (Ethan Warren) climbs his beanstalk in search of fortune and a better life for him and his mother (Ana Maria Alvarez.). Added to the mix are the Baker (Ryan Stajmiger) and his Wife (Kate Staiger) who must reverse a curse to have a child. To that end, the Witch (Kelsey Burd) sends them into the woods on a kind of scavenger hunt. As the Baker and his Wife work to gather a slipper as pure as gold, a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood and hair as yellow as corn, they find their relationship challenged and their fates intertwined with all the others on their own quests. The act ends with the wishes of our favorite characters fulfilled, and most of them gearing up to live happily ever after. However, when the story continues, the consequences of some of their questionable choices will catch up to them in terrifying ways.
It all makes for the perfect backdrop to some exquisite moments in the woods, such as Armold’s soaring soprano during “The Steps of the Palace” and “No One Is Alone,” heartbreakingly acted and beautifully sung with Stajmiger, Warren and Segatti. Alexander Johnson and Benjamin Klein are hilarious as the Princes—emphasizing what a mistake it was for the makers of the 2014 Disney film adaptation to omit the reprise of “Agony.” If anything, these guys should get a third encore. A tender moment between the Baker and the Mysterious Man (Ron Turner) showcases the dramatic nuances of Stajmiger and Turner, both of whom supply effortlessly essential dramatic gravitas throughout the show. Kelsey Burd turns in a stunningly muscular and versatile vocal performance as the Witch, who undergoes the most visually evident transformation in the show.
Hughes makes a curious directorial choice to “update” the second act, signified by the characters wearing modern dress and sporting cell phones, Starbucks and strollers. It makes for some cute sight gags and bits, but it seems a needlessly heavy-handed way to ensure that the audience sees themselves in the story. Maybe it’s intended as an extra dose of “reality” for Act Two, where the characters have to deal with what happens when one gets what one wishes for, and performers have to confront a difficult tonal change. Whether the costume design is the secret ingredient or not, Hughes and cast definitely rise to both challenges extraordinarily well, creating a thoughtfully bittersweet bedtime story full of haunting harmonies and ponderable cautionary tales. Like a well-placed spell, neither will be easily shook off.
Metropolis Performing Arts Centre presents “Into the Woods” through November 4 at 111 W Campbell St, Arlington Heights. More information and tickets are available here.