Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
"Into the Woods" is one of Stephen Sondheim's most popular and most produced musicals, partly because on the surface it seems like such an accessible and agreeable collection of fairy tales and familiar characters. But Sondheim is never easy or one-dimensional, and this show, especially with a second act that takes us into a realm of social, personal and moral responsibility, is both deeper and greater than just a collection of amusing stories. The woods become the tangled terrain of the adult world, the characters autonomous individuals whose every decision and action has consequence both for themselves and for others, and the "Giants in the sky" become an ambiguous and dangerous divinity to whom all must answer. The first act is just fun, a romp in Eden, but the second act is all about life after the Garden. Meticulously constructed from the singular brilliance of Sondheim's lyric writing and his frequently gorgeous music, James Lapine's book caries us on a long and complex journey without easy answers to challenging questions. Done well, it is anything but an easy show.
This production, with Direction and Musical Staging by Mark Waldrop, has many charms and a number of excellent performances from the large cast, but ultimately fails to achieve the resonance and magnitude required by the second act. There is plenty to enjoy here, but this show should ultimately achieve a transcendence that is both spiritual and profoundly mortal, and it never quite gets that.
One of the key decisions was to cast a ten year old girl in the role of Little Red Riding Hood. Ireland Woods is a remarkably talented child, with a strong singing voice and excellent diction, and dramatic focus quite beyond her years. Using a child in the role certainly adds an interesting complexity to her determination and resilience, but not having a child opposite her as Jack unbalances the relationships and the integrity of the themes they embody.
I particularly liked Leslie Law as the Baker's wife and Bob De Dea as her husband. Both of them had strong characterizations, and Law in particular kept her songs fully integrated into the character and action. Her performance of "Any Moment" (with Michael Hunsaker as Cinderella's Prince) was, for me, the best number in the show. I also liked Billie Wildrick very much as Cinderella, with her lovely voice and very sympathetic, unaffected character equally delightful as mistreated child and searching princess. The extremely complex role of the Witch, played by Lisa Estridge, was poorly directed, with the character far too superficial and Halloween caricature in the first act, and insufficiently dimensional in the second. She becomes a contemporary woman, and that's fine, but we really should still see in her everything of what the witch was in the first half of the play, and there was very little of that apparent. The earlier embodiment was simply lost.
The physical production was attractive, but a bit cumbersome. The large tangle of woods set on a turntable made for a strong design element, especially for a number of chase scenes, but it also restricted the playing area. With an open orchestra pit, the action was forced onto a fairly narrow horizontal space, and left a lot of flat blocking. In a show where depth and dimension are such critical themes, that's a fairly major visual problem. The costumes by Lynda Salsbury were very good, and Tom Sturge delivered a clean and effective lighting design. "Into the Woods" is a big show, not only in terms of cast and production demands, but also in terms of the scale of its dramatic concerns, the significance of the questions of personal responsibility, moral and ethical relationships and existential accountability. This production was very entertaining, particularly in the first act with its fun sense of play and whimsical imagination, but not successful in taking us to the greater depths of the second act. Unfortunately, with this show if you don't achieve that, if you don't bring the audience to a confrontation with serious and substantial questions about who we are to each other, and what our choices and actions mean in the context of the world and of existence itself, then you haven't really done the show. For all the effort and talent, it didn't get done here.