Once more, into the thicket

Broadway Rose makes musical magic with the tragedy and song of Sondheim's "Into the Woods"

What if the prince who Cinderella married turned out to be a philanderer? What if Jack’s war on giants didn’t end after he came down the beanstalk? What if Rapunzel suffered from PTSD and couldn’t enjoy her happily ever after? Those are some of the seductively perverse questions explored in Stephen Sondheim’s justly legendary 1987 fairy-tale musical Into the Woods, which has been brought to poignant, vibrant life in a new production by the Broadway Rose Theatre Company.

Into the Woods is a daunting play. It calls for a cast and crew able to make sense of its disparate narrative elements (twisted romance, morbid comedy, haunting tragedy) and get audiences through a few bland songs (“A Very Nice Prince,” “It Takes Two”) that lack the clarity and force of the play’s most iconic musical numbers (“Agony,” “You Are Not Alone”). Those challenges are managed seamlessly by director Jessica Wallenfels and her actors, who have journeyed into the maze of Sondheim’s music (and James Lapine’s book) and emerged with a production that is beautiful, freewheeling, and whole.

Erin Tamblyn in Broadway Rose’s Into the Woods. Photo: Liz Wade

Like all enduring works of art, Into the Woods is a vast canvas upon which multiple ideas have been projected. While the play can be taken simply as a cheeky-sad reboot of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault, some viewers have deemed it a metaphor for the AIDS crisis—not a stretch, given that its second act revolves around an unstoppable force that kills indiscriminately (in one case, almost immediately after sex).

But before that, we get a whole act of zany fun focused on the Baker (Eric Michael Little) and the Baker’s Wife (Leah Yorkston). Told by the Witch (Erin Tamblyn) that they can’t have children unless they bring her the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold, the couple embark on a screwball quest, during which they frequently find and lose the treasures they seek, and bump into the likes of Cinderella (Kailey Rhodes), Little Red Ridinghood (Hannah Sapitan), Jack (Tyler Andrew Jones) and the Mysterious Man (Dan Murphy, who is also the founding managing director of Broadway Rose).

While the first act features some of the play’s weakest tunes, the cast’s comedic flair makes it hard to care about that defect. Every actor is a master of verbal and physical wit, especially Sapitan (who imbues Red Ridinghood with the frenetic energy of a kid who just drank a 24-pack of Red Bull) and Austin Comfort, who oozes sensuality and smugness as both Cinderella’s Prince and the Wolf (the over-the-top way that he seductively tosses his long, honey-colored hair is the production’s best sight gag).

As anyone who is even vaguely familiar with Into the Woods knows, this ebullience isn’t meant to last. While the second act begins with most of the characters basking in the glow of newfound love and riches, their world convulses when the wife of a giant Jack slew descends to Earth, sick with grief and hungry for vengeance. Soon, characters begin suffering gruesome, scarily random deaths, leaving the survivors with little but the sting of mortality.

From left: Leah Yorkston, Eric Michael Little, Erin Tamblyn. Photo: Liz Wade

All of which is gracefully captured by Wallenfels and scenic designer Sean O’Skea, who have successfully translated the grim mood into visual terms. As a final showdown with the tormented giant looms, for instance, Jack and the Baker sit stage right atop a high platform (with their legs dangling precariously over the edge) while Cinderella and Red Ridinghood mournfully sit on the ground stage left. The combination of the asymmetrical placement of the performers (two high, two low) and the mostly barren set is striking, but it also has a point—to deepen the sense of emotional dislocation that makes the story and the music so overwhelming.

Of course, Into the Woods calls for both precision and rawness, and the actors are more than happy to oblige. I won’t soon forget Rhodes’ wounded hopefulness as Cinderella, Jones’ tremulous rage as Jack, or Little’s brilliant portrayal of the Baker’s drastic evolution. By believably taking the character from dopey innocence to self-annihilating bitterness to tearful commitment, he shows us the terror and beauty of being a human being in flux—while bringing powerfully vulnerable conviction to some of Sondheim’s best lyrics (“No more riddles/No more jests/No more curses you can’t undo/Left by fathers you never knew/No more quests”).

It’s worth noting that the play’s horrors are rarely deployed with sadistic glee—Into the Woods is about tragedies that rupture some bonds and deepen others. That is why it is unexpectedly fortunate that Broadway Rose’s usual venue, the Deb Fennell Auditorium, is currently being spruced up. Their current performance space, the New Stage Auditorium, is more compact, which allows you to be nearer to the potent intimacy that many of the characters share, to follow them more closely into the woods—and, in the case of the ones who survive, back again.

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