By Barry Reszel
Reviewing Stephen Sondheim‘s Into the Woods—particularly when it’s so obviously exquisitely performed and technically executed on every level, as it is in Writers Theatre’s current production—makes me feel a bit akin to an underclass math major who’s wandered into a philosophy of musical theatre PhD seminar.
Which marks the only time I’ve ever felt like a math major.
I get the woods metaphor for life, the characters’ representations of sundry people and challenges we all meet, the connections to our childhood stories and fears… I hear my professional musical theatre friends positively gush over their castings (or cry over their “thanks…next”s) for the chance to ascend this professional Everest of Sondheim’s complex score and witty, overlapping lyrics.
OK, so I’m a math major with liberal arts leanings.
What brings my angst with this show is that as a patron of numerous musicals, I simply don’t share the affection for this title that so many people hold dear. There, I said it.
And this said, of all possible iterations of this cherished (by most) show, the current Writers Theatre production will certainly be in anyone’s top-five.
The book by James Lapine calls on common cultural understanding of the classic children’s stories “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Cinderella,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Repunzel” and “The Baker and his Wife,” among others. Lapine weaves the iconic characters from these stories into their own, new, twisted storyline dominated by a vindictive giantess and a narcissistic witch. Sondheim’s music punctuates the narrative and gives depth (or purposefully points out the lack thereof) to characters from the Big, Bad Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood to two love-struck princes and, most importantly, the witch herself. To wit, “Children Will Listen” is the most well-known of the bunch from this songbook, and rightfully so. A full synopsis of the five-time Tony-winning show (including Best Revival of a Musical in 2002) and its production history may be read here.
Flawlessly cast and directed by the masterful Gary Griffin, this production is set in the round, making for a more intimate storytelling experience at Writers’ gorgeous Glencoe main stage. That’s accentuated by impeccable backstage work from Scott Davis (woodsy set), Christopher M. LaPorte (brilliant lighting), Lee Fiskness (clear sound), Rachel Watson (interesting props) and Mara Blumenfeld (gorgeous costumes), among a host of other top-notch professionals.
With music direction and reorchestrations by Matt Deitchman, the intricate score is beautifully performed and conducted by Charlotte Rivard-Hoster on the piano, in the company of Jeff Handley on percussion and Mike Matlock on every band instrument possible.
Onstage standouts begin with Michael Mahler as the earnest Baker and his wife, strongly and lovingly portrayed by Brianna Borger. Bethany Thomas is magnificent as as the Witch, and her rendition of the standout song, “Children Will Listen” is indeed special.
Little Red Riding Hood (Lucy Godinez), The Wolf (Matt Edmonds), Jack (Ben Barker), Jack’s mother (McKinley Carter), Cinderella (Ximone Rose), Cinderella’s step-mother (Kelli Harrington) and step-sisters (Molly Hernandez and Nicole Arnold), Rapunzel (Cecilia Iole) and the two princes (Ryan McBride and Alex Benoit hilariously singing and then reprising the second best song of the show, “Agony”) are truly the ultimate professionals. So too is the Narrator performed memorably by Writers’ Artistic Director/Founder Michael Halberstam, as is the part of the Mysterious Man by William Brown through Sept. 17, then by Jonathan Weir. Griffin’s is indeed and all-star Chicagoland cast.
And yet despite these plaudits, and the recommendation for anyone not named me to absolutely see this show, the math student still wins within my own consciousness.
Maybe I just don’t trust parenting advice from a mother who locked up her own child in a tower, no matter how gorgeously she sings it.
Perhaps the dark focus in these dark times simply feels ominously too dark.
But I think above all, I simply don’t appreciate that Lapine and Sondheim’s Into the Woods feels to me like a big “Fuck you” to the ideal of happily ever after. That the hope of our childhood fairy tales are traded, at best, for the message that although life is fraught with mass danger, no one is alone…probably…maybe.
And even if that’s honest, it’s not the feeling I want in my gut when driving home from an evening’s musical entertainment.
Writers Theatre presents “Into The Woods” through September 29 at 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe. More information and tickets are available here.