I did not listen to my much-loved soundtrack of Stephen Sondheim’s and James Lapine’s classic fairy tale mash-up before heading off to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to see the Fiasco Theater Production of Into the Woods. I was afraid that reminding myself of how much I loved the original production would keep me from fully appreciating the new one.
As it turns out, I need not have worried. The updated Into the Woods directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld is so fresh and innovative and so superbly acted that I was immediately swept up in the action and transported to a fairy tale world of witches, bakers, princesses, giants, and mysterious men. From the moment you enter the Eisenhower Theater and spy the gorgeous set by Derek McLand sitting ready and waiting on the stage you will know that you are in for a different type of retelling than the original. Filled with everyday objects that are later put to good use as innovative set pieces (think a dress dummy that becomes a tree and a ladder that serves as Rapunzel’s tower), the set somehow manages to be both opulent and spare at the same time, reminding me of both of my grandmother’s attic and the most beautiful antique store I’ve ever seen.
Before the show even officially begins you know the actors are going to make it something special. Casually walking around the stage or strolling through the audience, they develop an instant connection with those who have come to see them. Unlike every other show I’ve ever seen, all of the actors are on stage throughout the entire show, sometimes standing quietly in the background, sometimes playing one of the few instruments used in the show (Bonne Kramer, for example somehow managed to play Cinderella’s step-mother and Jack’s mother and the bassoon) and sometimes transforming themselves into another part right before your eyes. With Evan Rees at the helm as the Music Director and Pianist, the cast took just a handful of instruments and make it seem like a full orchestra was playing.
Many of the characters play more than one role in the show making quick costume changes a necessity and challenging the actors to create several very different personas right in front of the audience’s eyes. I was wondering, for example, how Anthony Chatmon II (so charismatic as Cinderella’s stepsister Lucinda, the Wolf, and Cinderella’s prince…I am totally crushing on this adorable actor) would manage a scene featuring both Lucinda and Cinderella’s prince, but once again this was no problem, as this actor, and all the others, are perfectly capable of playing more than one character at the same time. Similar challenges were successfully tackled by Darick Pead, who managed to play Milky White (yes, that’s right, the cow), Florinda, and Rapunzel’s Prince without missing a beat. The combination of Chatmon and Pead as the dueling princes was another of my favorite parts of the show and with their easy comradery it was easy to believe the two had been trying to outdo each other since childhood.
Speaking of the performances, each of the actors brought something special to this production. Eleasha Gamble’s rendition of the Baker’s Wife paired perfectly with Evan Harrington’s Baker, with Gamble’s “Moments in the Woods” being a high point in the show for me. Harrington and Fred Rose (as the Mysterious Man) made the song “No More” really come alive by literally bringing the song down to the audience’s level.
Vanessa Reseland as the Witch was perfection. Without using the heavy makeup and costuming of the original, Reseland makes the part her own using only the strength of her acting. Laurie Veldheer was just as amazing as Cinderella. This actress has a Jennifer Garner-esque girl-next-door quality that makes her immediately appealing and sympathetic. She uses her charms to full effect in the song “On the Steps of the Palace” where she barely moves from one spot and yet manages to completely engage the audience in her angst and indecision.
The parts of Jack and the Steward were both played by Philippe Arroyo and he did such a good job of differentiating between the two characters that it wasn’t until I read the Playbill that I realized both were the same person. Arroyo’s “Giants in the Sky” was perfectly sung and his relationship with his best friend Milky White is heartwarming.
Lisa Helmi Johanson was perfect as Little Red Ridinghood, a deceptively difficult role, and as poor Rapunzel, kept locked in her tower until she is banished to the desert by the Witch for her transgressions.
One more piece of the show I must mention is the addition of, “Our Little World” sung by Johanson as Rapunzel and Reseland as the Witch. (The song was introduced in the 1990 West End Production). This beautiful song pulled at my heartstrings as the mother of a preteen and is the perfect foil for the “Witch’s Lament” later in Act II.
With very few set changes but several different settings to convey, changes in location and mood often fall to Lighting Designer Christopher Akerlind, who has nailed the use of lighting to transmit a feeling of place. In one scene in Act II that took my breath away, the lighting perfectly showcased Reseland’s performance of “The Last Midnight” and as the show descends deeper into its darker themes, the lighting works with the actors to take the audience to the darker place.
The sound design by Darron L. West as I have never been to a show with clearer, crisper, sound. Every word out of the actor’s mouths is audible and understandable. This is not a show where you will be saying, “What did he say?” to your companion or straining to hear what the actor said. Instead you’ll be able to relax and enjoy the full effect of Sondheim’s poignant and often hilarious lyrics.
I realize I am gushing over this production and it deserves to be gushed over. I could go on and on about the merits of this show but instead I encourage you to see it for yourself. Don’t hesitate to make the trip to the Kennedy Center to see Fiasco Theater’s Production of Into the Woods. It is likely to be the theater highlight of your year.
Running Time: Two hours 45 minutes, including a 20-minute intermission.
Recommended Ages: 8 and up.
Into the Woods plays through January 8, 2017, at the Eisenhower Theater at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts– 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202)-467-4600, or purchase them online.
‘Into the Woods’ at The Kennedy Center by John Stoltenberg in his column ‘Magic Time.’