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What happens after happily ever after? That is a question that keeps audiences coming back to Into the Woods, a beloved creation of the late lyricist-composer Stephen Sondheim and librettist James Lapine. Audiences familiar with the pair’s deconstruction of fairy-tale classics will be happy with Signature Theatre’s latest mounting, which opens a season dedicated to the legendary composer. Under the leadership of artistic director Matthew Gardiner and music director Jon Kalbfleisch, Into the Woods demonstrates why Signature has earned distinction as an interpreter of Sondheim’s works, even if this rendition doesn’t quite pull off the unique spin it aims for.
According to its wizened Narrator (Christopher Bloch), Into the Woods takes place in the same world most fairy tales do: once upon a time in a far off kingdom. There we find Cinderella (Katie Mariko Murray), ruled by her demeaning Stepmother (Maria Rizzo) and stepsisters (Adelina Mitchell and Chani Wereley), with no help from her bumbling Father (Lawrence Redmond); Jack (David Merino), a rambunctious boy who lives with his Mother (Sherri L. Edelen), and his best friend, a cow named Milky White; the precocious Little Red Riding Hood (Alex De Bard); and a humble Baker (Jake Loewenthal) and his Wife (literally dubbed “The Baker’s Wife” in the program, played by Erin Weaver).
Each character is charting a familiar path through their own story when a Witch (Nova Y. Payton) appears to the Baker and his Wife with an offer to deliver them the child they have so far been unable to conceive. The Witch reveals that the Baker’s impotence is the result of a curse she placed on his father after he was caught robbing the Witch’s garden. To get the curse reversed, the Baker and his Wife must delve into the woods in search of four ingredients for a potion that will restore the Witch’s youth and beauty. Along the way, the couple becomes entangled with Red, who is pursued by the predatory Wolf (Vincent Kempski) while on her way to visit her Grandmother (Crystal J. Freeman); Cinderella, fleeing the smitten Prince (also Kempski) and his steward (Kurt Boehm); and Jack, who sells his beloved Milky White in exchange for magic beans. The Witch, meanwhile, struggles to rein in Rapunzel (Simone Brown), the daughter she stole from the Baker’s father, who has won the heart of her own fair Prince (Paul Scanlan). Everyone gets what they wish for in due time, but the compromises along the way plant the seeds for a series of catastrophes that prove happy endings are never quite what they seem.
The most intriguing aspect of Signature’s production is its setting: a decrepit Victorian nursery, complete with crumbling walls and invasive plant life, all finely rendered in Lee Savage’s set design. The Narrator engages the nursery as if familiar with it, suggesting the story emerges from somewhere in the house’s past. The effect is accentuated by character entrances through various set pieces and inventive prop use that plays up an element of childlike make-believe. As the story progresses, however, the characters interact with the house less and less, pushing Savage’s set and the possibilities it affords further into the background. Even the giant tree branch jutting through the stage right wall goes unused at just the moment in act two when a tree branch would be most useful. The conceit itself summons up questions that are never quite answered. If these tales still haunt the halls of the old house, then what does that say about their influence—or indeed the Narrator, who seems to treat it like a home? Into the Woods already comments enough on the power of stories; what this new framing adds to that is unclear.
Nevertheless, the production is largely a treat for the eyes and ears. Sondheim’s score, played by an impressive 15-piece orchestra tucked behind the walls of the nursery, soars under Kalbfleisch’s direction, and the cast meets it in tune. Signature’s black box MAX Theatre is a snug fit for a cast this size, but Gardiner coordinates the intersecting storylines, ensuring each beat receives proper attention. The standout moments are the solos—Merino’s bounding rendition of “Giants in the Sky,” Payton’s aching “Stay with Me,” Weaver’s befuddled and melancholic “Any Moment”—but the standout performer is De Bard, whose Red grows in emotional complexity and whose sweetness is always cut with a hard edge. Lapine’s humor, alternately witty and tongue-in-cheek, sometimes falls flat as the cast plays for laughs, though over-the-top archetypes like Kempski’s charming-but-not-sincere Prince for Cinderella land well. The cast is rounded out by a vocal cameo from Phylicia Rashad, who booms through the foundations of the theater as the heartbroken and vengeful Giant with help from Eric Norris’ excellent sound design.
Like the stories that inspired it, Into the Woods has become a classic in its own right. While Signature’s conceit misses some opportunities, the production nails Sondheim’s signature numbers with the expertise the theater has earned as one of the master’s foremost interpreters.
Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods, directed by Matthew Gardiner, plays at Signature Theatre through Jan. 29. sigtheatre.org. $40-$109.