Happy Ever After: NextStop’s Innovative Into the Woods Gloriously Updates a Classic for a New Generation
NextStop Theatre Company’s Into the Woods is a glorious reinterpretation of the Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine classic musical. This fractured fairy tale is brought brilliantly to life by the actors and orchestra – as well as a truly unique production concept-to create a moving and memorable experience that leaves the audience wishing for more.
Into the Woods combines the iconic stories of Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Jack and the Beanstalk with a Sondheim/Lapine invented tale of a childless baker and his wife. Their intertwining quests lead the fairy tale band into the woods where the characters learn about the cost and consequences wishes, choices, and “happily ever afters.” The original Broadway production garnered three Tony Awards and a Grammy, and inspired an upcoming Hollywood movie starring Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, and Anna Kendrick.
Director Evan Hoffmann’s concept of Into the Woods is fresh and inventive, drawing out nuances in the material and giving it such vibrancy and urgency that the characters literally spring to life from the pages of their books. Steven Royal’s scenic design is brilliant. A library bursting with secret passages, twisting staircases, and nary a beanstalk in sight gives the director and actors a fresh canvas on which to tell the story, particularly when combined with Eric Kritzler’s and Franklin C. Coleman’s sound and lighting designs. The sound and the chaos of the books falling off the shelves more than effectively conveys the sense of terror and impending doom as the Giant’s Wife (voiced with indignation and wry humor by the Today show host Kathie Lee Gifford) closes in on her prey in Act Two. Property Designer Sierra Banack gives innovative life to two of my favorites –Jack’s faithful cow, Milky White, and Cinderella’s magic birds. Kathy Dunlap’s costumes also add to the magic of Into the Woods, helping define each of the character’s specific personalities.
Music Director Elisa Rosman and her orchestra create beautiful music from behind the second floor book shelves of the library set. This talented group of musicians – both orchestra and singers – tackled the complexities of Sondheim’s score with a clarity and beauty that made it come alive.
The entire cast of Into the Woods delivers solid performances. As the Baker and the Baker’s Wife, John Loughney and Katie McManus have the difficult task of being the human foil to the fairy tale characters. In their quest for a child, Loughney and McManus convey longing, passion, desire, and sorrow as they face the consequences of their choices. The chemistry between them is electric, particularly as they bicker in “Maybe They’re Magic” and come together in “It Takes Two.” Loughney hauntingly conveys the sense of being chased by his past in a moving and emotional “No More.” McManus shines in every scene, but most particularly in her sassy self-examination “Moments in the Woods.”
It is a challenge to any actress playing the Witch to compete with the indelible performances left by such iconic predecessors as Bernadette Peters and Phylicia Rashad. However, Priscilla Cuellar uses her powerful voice and commanding presence to make the Witch her own. Cueller’s rendition of “Last Midnight” is filled with rage and self-righteousness, and her “Children Will Listen” is hauntingly beautiful. Cueller sounds all of the right notes of mother love, possessiveness, and regret in her relationship with Rapunzel (Suzanne Stanley), particularly in a wrenching “Stay With Me.”
Lynn Audrey Neal transforms what can be a throw-away role into one of the most richly developed characters in a musical packed with interesting people. Neal’s thoughtful portrayal of Jack’s Mother as a woman willing to do anything to protect her son really expands on the Sondheim/Lapine themes of being careful with your wishes and dealing with the consequences of your actions.
Sean McComas delivers a soaringly beautiful “Giants in the Sky.” As Jack, McComas radiates boyish idealism and courage. He embues Jack with heart as he matures from a drifting dreamer to an active doer. Brittany Martz serves up a spunky and sassy Cinderella who develops confidence in her own abilities as she faces the consequences of her wishes and decisions.
Nora Palka does a lovely job of embodying all the contradictions in Little Red Riding Hood‘s character. Palka has great comic chops, particularly in her interactions with the Baker, the Baker’s Wife, and Jack. She also effectively draws out the sexual yearning and fear in her encounter with the Wolf (a delightfully sleazy Scott Gaines). Palka’s fresh approach to her character yields a Little Red who is vibrant and undaunted, a heroine for the 21st century.
In such a strong ensemble cast, there are a number of standout performances. As Rapunzel’s Prince, Scott Harrison provides some of the most enjoyable comic moments of the evening with his hair flips and pratfalls. Harrison’s “Agony” duets with Cinderella’s Prince (Scott Gaines) are beautifully sung and wonderfully acted. Harrison and Gaines turn the stereotype of Prince Charming completely upside down. In dual roles, Gaines turns in deliciously seductive performances as both the menacing wolf and the roving prince.
As Cinderella’s stepmother, Jennifer Lambert is delightfully self-serving. Her impeccable comic timing carries off one of the most macabre moments of the show. As the stepsisters, Laura Fontaine and Jaclyn Young don’t get a lot of stage time, but they wring every bit of life out of the time they have. Fontaine and Young are scene-stealing actresses whose comic flair adds new dimensions to Florinda and Lucinda.
Don’t wait until the last midnight to get your tickets to NextStop’s sumptuous Into the Woods. The magic of this extraordinary production will linger long after the music ends.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, 30 minutes with one intermission.
Into the Woods plays through June 1, 2014 at NextStop Theatre Company at the Industrial Strength Theatre -269 Sunset Park Drive, in Herndon, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.
Meet the Cast of NextStop Theatre Company’s ‘Into the Woods’ Part 1: Brittany Martz.
Meet the Cast of NextStop Theatre Company’s ‘Into the Woods’ Part 2: John Loughney.
Kathy Lee Gifford joins NextStop Theatre Company’s ‘Into the Woods.