By Patrick O’Brien
There’s poetry in Music Theater Works mounting Stephen Sondheim’s perennial musical Into the Woods at the winter solstice. It’s the darkest point in the year, but light will slowly return.
It ain’t Sweeney Todd, but any musical drawn from classic fairy tales can’t help but be a little scary like that, and to be clear, we’re talking “classic fairy tale” in the the sense of “occasionally losing digits,” not Disney.
Save that darkness for Act Two, though. Act One is a fine farce that drops Red Riding Hood (Cecilia Iole), Cinderella (Kelly Britt), Jack (Christopher Ratliff) and his beanstalk, and Rapunzel (Sarah Wasserman) in the middle of the woods with a baker and his wife (Daniel Tatar and Alexis Armstrong, respectively), who need some token from each of the four to cure the barrenness set upon them by the Witch (Michelle Jasso). Throw in some princes here and a wolf there, and criss-crossing hilarity ensues. Handsome hilarity, at that: Christopher Rhoton’s set and Jane DeBondt and Jesus Perez’s costumes are storybook-worthy.
But all things, even magic, have consequences and trade-offs, after all. The princes may be charming, but not much else. The witch may gain in youth and beauty, but loses her powers. And Jack’s — and everyone else’s — troubles only began when he robbed and felled that giant.
There’s a lot to process, from the sumptuous visuals to Sondheim’s fiendishly surprising and revealing songs to bookwriter James Lapine’s clever weaving. Thankfully, director Rudy Hogenmiller trusts the music and libretto enough to direct the piece in a straightforward fashion that makes this production a solid Sondheim primer, for anyone ready for next-level musical theatre performance.
Above all, Jasso’s Witch is a scene-stealing force of nature, and has a firm grasp on this unlikely moral compass, if the Witch can be said to be interested in morals at all. Tatar and Armstrong, then, are the musical’s empathetic heart, every-people muddling through and making mistakes big and small. Fine ensemble, too, with veterans like Rebekah Rawhouser alternately bringing sheer ham and terror to the parts of the Wicked Stepmother and the Giant’s Wife.
Into the Woods isn’t grimdark. As intimated, there’s hope, albeit delivered with a word of warning. Children will listen — to stories, to moral instruction, to anything in their vicinity. Make sure what they hear is worthwhile. Into the Woods is worthwhile.
Music Theater Works presents “Into the Woods” through December 31 at Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson Street, Evanston. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Brett Beiner.