I have loved Sondheim’s Into the Woods since seeing its original Broadway production. Three decades on, Ford’s Theatre’s current version carries the tradition forward proudly.
For anyone unfamiliar with it, the show begins as a mashup of several well-known fairy tales, primarily Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel. To this crew, Sondheim and book author James Lapine add a baker and his wife, cursed with infertility by the vegetable-loving witch next door. The stories intersect as the characters go into the literal and metaphorical woods on a quest to make their dearest wishes come true. But as the second act finale notes, “wishes come true, not free.” There are unintended consequences. The woods become darker and more dangerous, and the stakes become progressively higher.
Into the Woods is in every sense an ensemble show, and Ford’s full ensemble shines particularly brightly in the opening number and the first and second act finales, handling with clarity the blizzard of infinitives (a series of 16 in first act finale alone) the authors throw at them. Those infinitives are not just there to show verbal cleverness. ”You have to act,” the lyrics declare, and spell out specifically the acts the characters have to take, based on their own choices. The necessity of making choices is a major point of the show, and characters construct who they are through the choices they make and act upon.
Even relatively smaller roles contribute to this theme. Rapunzel (Quynh-My Luu) serves as a counterexample. Shut up in a doorless tower by her hyper-protective mother, the witch (Rachel Zampelli), what prevents her from tying her cascade of hair to one of the pillars and climbing down, freeing herself? Perhaps she doesn’t wish her freedom enough? She doesn’t take action, passively yielding to the wishes first of her mother and then of her prince (Hasani Allen), subsequently blaming them for her misery.
Among the major characters, never has there been a more ravenous Little Red (Jade Jones, an audience favorite), who enters the woods to give her grandmother whatever food she hasn’t eaten herself, encountering two equally ravenous wolves (Allen and Christopher Mueller), who relish seductively talking to their prospective meal (“Hello, Little Girl”). That meal, and Little Red’s rescue by the knife-wielding baker, are depicted well in one of Clint Allen’s projections, following which Jones nails her big number, “I Know Things Now.” There were also every effective projections for Cinderella’s arboreal mother and the very large shadow of a vengeful giant.
The Baker (Evan Casey) and his wife (Awa Sal Secka) go to the woods to collect a miscellany of objects the witch demands to remove the curse. Sondheim comments in Look, I Made a Hat that he and Lapine intended these characters to represent the feelings and concerns of a modern urban American couple who just want a family and a peaceful life, but who find themselves in a fanciful medieval setting involving witches, giants, and princes. “I’m in the wrong story,” the Baker’s Wife comments in Act 2.
There is no single lead in the show, but Secka takes the honors as the evening’s outstanding performer. She makes her character’s story gripping as she transforms from a wife simply longing for a baby to a full partner in the couple’s quest. She goes on to become a woman searching for balance between the “or” and the “and” in life, between the reality of daily life and living in the moment in the woods. Secka articulates that transition in the song “Moments in the Woods,” the highlight solo of the production, not only vocally but with her face and body registering her character’s rapid changes of thought and emotion as the number proceeds.
I have seen Bakers who have found greater depth in their character, but Casey’s performance registers well in his more serious moments in the second act, particularly “No More,” ending in a particularly tender moment of reconciliation with the Mysterious Man (Scott Sedar).
Cinderella (Erin Driscoll) has perhaps the longest character arc in the show, and she embodies her changes flawlessly, singing in her clear soprano how she deals with an importunate prince in “On the Steps of the Palace,” then topping that as she leads a moving rendition of “No One is Alone.” The princes are ridiculously funny characters when played totally straight. Allen’s and Mueller’s exertions to take them further over the top seemed unnecessary. Zampelli’s best moments are her sweeter ones, such as “Stay With Me” and the final “Children Will Listen.”
The production team created some innovative wrinkles I haven’t seen in other productions. Take Jack’s cow. It is usually an inanimate model. Director Peter Flynn instead cast an actor (Tiazano D’Affuso) in the role, in a white costume with a vaguely bovine open headpiece. This most anthropomorphic Milky White reacts, often quite hilariously, to the goings on of her human counterparts, becoming a genuine character in the story. In Wade Laboissonniere’s costume design – the costumes overall are as colorful and varied as one could ask – the Narrator (Sedar), typically clad in a business suit, wears a Park Ranger’s outfit, fitting perfectly with the sylvan setting, designed by Milagros Ponce de Leon.
Beyond its intensely intricate lyrics, beyond the humorous twists of familiar stories, beyond musical writing that remains stunningly fresh, this is a show that conveys, in an accessible and deeply affecting way, real wisdom about life and what we make of it. In a divisive time, insisting on the absolute necessity of community for survival, the need to act, the value of being able to tell our own stories, and the priceless treasure of the families we choose, Into the Woods has the truth of genuinely great art.
Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, including one intermission.