City Paper is not for tourists
Children will listen,” a bereaved witch cautions in the aching, heart-lifting melody that rounds out Into the Woods, and listen you’ll certainly want to: Stephen Sondheim’s tunes are beautifully conflicted essays on what you risk when you wish, and they’re sung enchantingly in the production that inaugurates the grand new Arlington home of Signature. (That’s all, just “Signature”; the company seems to have left the “Theatre” part of its name behind in that grotty but much-loved bumper-plating factory on Four Mile Run.) But—and this makes a kind of poetic sense in a show that’s all about the perils as well as the promise of dreaming big—the company’s spacious new mainstage, called the Max, turns out to need an acoustical tuneup, so some of Into the Woods’ beauties go begging.
Not the lively performances, which make for an entertaining evening if not quite a triumphant one. Eric Schaeffer, who’s made a national name finding emotional through-lines in Sondheim’s cerebral musicals, makes this fretful fairy tale seem more unified than usual, which is no small accomplishment: Sondheim and collaborator James Lapine serve up a well-populated enchanted forest in which familiar fables get tangled up—a beanstalk-climbing Jack shows off for a singularly bloodthirsty Little Red while Cinderella’s Prince’s younger brother woos Rapunzel from the foot of that tower. (Eventually the men get restless at home, of course, and wander off to rescue Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.) Rapunzel’s mother turns out to be the hag tormenting a childless Baker and his restless Wife, who, in the title number, sets off to find the ingredients for a spell that’ll lift the curse of barrenness—which got imposed, in the first place, because the Baker’s father stole a handful of magic beans (aha!) from the Witch’s garden. Still with me? It’s OK: Follow the beans, represented by Sondheim with a jaunty, five-note musical theme threaded throughout the evening, and you’ll be fine.
There’s not much to regret, either, about the physical production, framed by Robert Perdziola with a twilight-gray set that takes on whatever tone Chris Lee decides to light it with—an eerie green, a hungry red, a dappled and melancholy blue, and so on. A tower looms front and center as you enter the 400-seat black-box space, configured in three-quarter round for this first production: It stretches, like the tall trees and the towering chimney that anchor other corners, up into the moss and ivy that make a convincing-enough forest canopy out of the lighting catwalks suspended above the stage. (Catwalks? At Signature? It is a new era, isn’t it?) A broad and handsome stairway curves down from where Jon Kalbfleisch’s 15-piece orchestra sits enthroned in the balcony. (A balcony? At Signature?!? Nice what you can do with $16 million.) Perdziola’s costumes, brighter and more whimsical than the settings, are every bit as attractive—with the odd and uncharacteristically flashy exception of a low-cut, sparkly number that threatens to turn the Witch’s Lament into a trio—and the beauty of Signature, even in a space that’s better than twice as big as its old home, is that you’re still close enough to the action to appreciate the detail work on, say, Cinderella’s ball gown.
But as intimate as the room feels, it’s less acoustically alive than the management probably hoped. Bigger voices and brighter timbres will be fine in the Max: Signature co-founder Donna Migliaccio, who mines the part of Jack’s long-suffering mother for no little comedy, sounds right at home, as does Daniel Cooney, whose sure, sweet tenor and subtle performance makes his downhearted Baker an admirably ineffectual sort of hero. And Erin Driscoll’s drolly disenchanted Rapunzel and Eleasha Gamble’s overprotective Witch make a gleaming success out of “Our Little World,” a duet added for the 1990 London production. (And thank God: The song makes rather more sense out of their fractious relationship, even if it adds a few minutes to an already long Act 1.)
Others don’t fare as well, though: April Harr Blandin, who’s charming as the Baker’s Wife, is also occasionally inaudible, especially when her back is to the audience. There’s not much bounce to the room, so despite what would seem to be a scrupulous effort on Kalbfleisch’s part not to overwhelm the singers, Blandin’s voice just evaporates when she’s facing away—and in a three-quarter-round production, she’s facing away from somebody as often as not. So, too, for Lauren Williams’ pert Little Red, at least in the early going, and even for Stephanie Waters’ beautifully poised Cinderella. They’re all doing very nice work, really—Waters is terrific with the internal monologue behind the delicate, rhymed indecisions of “On the Steps of the Palace,” Blandin does winsome things with awakening self-awareness in “It Takes Two” and “Moments in the Woods,” and Williams negotiates the hairpins of “I Know Things Now” with considerable aplomb—but their voices never quite wrap themselves around you. Given Signature’s longtime (and admirable) love affair with the unamplified voice, that’s a bit of a disappointment; let’s hope it’s fixable.
Meantime, enjoy the naughty relish of Little Red’s encounter with her Wolf, played as usual by the actor who also sings Cinderella’s Prince: James Moye makes the furry one an athletically lascivious sort—there’s no question about precisely what kind of violation he plans at Granny’s cottage, which is a little jolting, given an otherwise subtle production—and his carefully coiffed Prince is amusingly self-absorbed. (As for “Agony,” that intricate comic hymn to the allure of the unattainable, Moye and Sean MacLaughlin, as Rapunzel’s Prince, sell it effortlessly to that new balcony, which is just as it should be.)
Enjoy the ruthless sass of Channez McQuay’s social-climbing Stepmother, the doltish charm of Stephen Gregory Smith’s clueless, interestingly petulant Jack, the hilarious, brief encounter between the Baker’s Wife and Cinderella’s Prince. Enjoy how clear Gamble makes the arcane melodies that Sondheim gives the Witch: They demand a strong, agile, expressive voice, and hers is all of those. Enjoy, especially, the ravishing “No One Is Alone,” which opens out from a solo to become a divided duet and then a four-cornered song of hope and mourning, and then “Children Will Listen,” that teasing almost-chorale that evaporates rather than overwhelms.
They’re lovely moments, those—and moments, as the Baker’s Wife learns to appreciate, can be rewarding enough in themselves if you can manage to cherish them, and learn from them, and let them go.