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Stephen Sondheim is a master of transforming ordinary events—turning a year older, a college graduation, an art exhibition— into transcendent, powerful anthems about, uh, being alive. Into the Woods, Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical that forces many fairy tale favorites into the same story, exists in a fantasy world but features human characters with emotional arcs more affecting than anything the Walt Disney Company could create. In Ford’s Theatre’s new production of Into the Woods, the magic comes from the production team, and a cast of talented D.C. stage veterans perform the emotional labor.
The journey to happily ever after never runs smoothly, particularly when the problems of Jack, his mother, Little Red Ridinghood, her granny, Cinderella, Rapunzel, a baker, his wife, and the neighborhood witch intersect. That makes the Ford’s production, which runs close to three hours, feel a little long, so the visual splendor that projection designer Clint Allen and lighting designer Rui Rita create helps keep things interesting for the many restless school groups that will no doubt attend a performance in the coming weeks.
Projecting the face of Karen Vincent onto a tree, for example, gives some permanence to the character of Cinderella’s mother. And when the Giant, whom Jack has wronged, descends from the sky, she takes the form of a 25-foot shadow. The crew clearly had fun figuring out how to render the non-human characters, and the actors that play them—Tiziano D’Affuso as Milky White the cow and Christopher Mueller and Hasani Allen as wolves—enjoy the laughs they elicit from the audience.
Fun, it seems, is what Peter Flynn aims to create, and he succeeds. When the 20 performers flood the stage to sing the opening number, they appear giddy and move through Michael Bobbitt’s choreography with joy. Mueller and Allen, switching from fur to finery to play Cinderella’s and Rapunzel’s princes, respectively, embody their characters’ Ken Doll doltishness on two versions of “Agony,” and Jade Jones steals scenes—and many baked goods—as a daring Little Red Ridinghood.
The problem with leaning into the fun of Into the Woods is that it masks the more interesting emotional arcs of the second act. Awa Sal Secka imbues the Baker’s Wife with intense familial devotion, but we don’t get the same sense of maternal love from Rachel Zampelli, the witch who so desires to keep her child safe that she locks her in a tower. By the time the cast sings “No One Is Alone” and “Children Will Listen,” two standards from the 20th century musical theater canon, audience members are shifting in their seats and ready for a laugh, not a life lesson. The wisdom Sondheim builds into those songs doesn’t stick without the full commitment of the actor and the viewer.
Beauty, both aesthetic and musical, remains, however, and if spending a night in a fantasy world where Cinderella can wear a sparkling gown, wed her handsome prince, then decide she’d rather be single, sounds appealing, then by all means enjoy this journey into the forest. If you look closely, you might even find some magic.
To May 22 at 511 10th St. NW. $27–$81. (202) 347-4833. fords.org.