Writers Theatre's 'Into the Woods' casts emotional, enchanting spell
"Into the Woods" -- ★ ★ ★ ★
Late in Writers Theatre's enchanting, emotionally satisfying revival of "Into the Woods," the fairy tale characters blame each other for their shared plight, which has placed them at the mercy of a vengeful giantess pursuing the person responsible for her husband's death.
Watching their accusations fly, it occurred to me most of their problems could have been prevented if a doting husband desperate to satisfy his pregnant wife's cravings for vegetables had offered to pay his neighbor for her produce instead of stealing it.
Of course, there would have been no "Into the Woods." And musical theater would have been the poorer without Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's cleverly crafted, combination cautionary tale and coming-of-age saga about aspiring, overprotective (and absent) parents and willful children. Writers' deeply felt production, cannily directed by Gary Griffin, makes that clear.
Griffin, renowned for his Sondheim interpretations, deftly balances the show's good humor with its tender, broken heart.
Indeed, like many Grimm Brothers' tales, "Into the Woods" is rooted in heartbreak, betrayal, disappointment and death. The characters -- a vengeful witch, charming princes, disobedient children -- are flawed people whose happily-ever-afters didn't turn out as they expected. Selfish, greedy and desperate, their (mostly) good intentions (often) lead them to make bad choices that more often than not end in tragedy. Yet, as "Into the Woods'" penultimate number reminds us, no one is alone. Love endures. And these days especially, that's something worth remembering.
Sondheim and Lapine weave together several familiar tales. In one part of the woods are the distressed damsels Cinderella (Ximone Rose) and Rapunzel (Cecilia Iole), each of whom is pursued by a prince. These charmers are played by Ryan McBride and Alex Benoit, fine singers whose vocal timbre is as ideally matched as their temperaments.
Elsewhere, Little Red (a spirited Lucy Godinez) sets out for her grandmother's house with a basket of goodies, about half of which will actually make it to grandma's thanks to Red's appetite for sweets. Meanwhile, Jack's frustrated but fiercely protective mother (fine work by McKinley Carter) orders her endearingly dim son (the terrific Ben Barker) to the market to sell his bovine best friend Milky White (Mary Poole, a delight).
Last but not least are original Sondheim and Lapine characters: a childless baker and his wife played by Michael Mahler and Brianna Borger, lovely singers who root the couple's sometimes prickly relationship in truth. They agree to procure items for the witch who lives next door. In exchange, she promises to lift the infertility curse she put on the baker's family when his father stole from her garden. Bethany Thomas plays the witch. A commanding presence, whose voice impresses with each hearing, Thomas is perhaps the drollest Sondheim sorceress I've encountered.
We meet these characters as their journeys commence. We watch them overcome obstacles, establish allies and earn what they think will be their happily-ever-afters, accompanied by the fine trio of conductor/pianist Charlotte Rivard-Hoster, percussionist Jeff Handley and woodwind player Mike Matlock.
The woodland adventures unfold on designer Scott Davis' intriguingly abstract, in-the-round set dominated by a tree, which pierces a baby grand piano, and whose trunk and branches consist of detritus from demolished houses: literal broken homes.
But it's not until the second act, when the characters confront what happens after they receive everything they've yearned for and schemed to obtain, that the show's impact is truly felt. "Careful the wish you make," Sondheim's lyrics caution, reminding us that happiness can be temporary. Happiness has consequences, some of them unintended -- and unwelcome. After all, life is not a fairy tale. "Into the Woods" reminds us we should be glad it isn't.
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Location: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, (847) 242-6000 or writerstheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday; through Sept. 11. No 6 p.m. show Sept. 1 and 15. Additional matinees Aug. 28 and Sept. 11.
Running time: About 2 hours, 50 minutes with intermission
Parking: Free street parking
Rating: Suitable for teens and older; might be unsettling for young children or sensitive audience members