Irving — “Once upon a time,” the narrator begins, and we lean in to watch four familiar fairy tales unfold in a fresh weaving together of plots. We’re embarking deep Into the Woods in Lyric Stage’s witty and handsome production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1987 musical, the critically loved company’s first Sondheim musical with full orchestra. (Lyric did an acclaimed A Little Night Music in the mid-1990s, before its full-orchestra productions began.)
Texas Christian University theater professor and veteran musical director Harry Parker makes his Lyric Stage debut with stylish staging and a superb cast of 19 singers, richly costumed in Nancy Missimi’s jewel-colored outfits. All romp through the tangled paths of this pulsing, lively forest, and deliver Sondheim’s witty, evocative lyrics with great joy and clarity. Jay Dias’ lush 30-member orchestra envelopes the singers precisely, sometimes creating a playful dialogue between singer and cello—and once even handing flowers up to a wandering princess.
Everyone who every wandered in the woods or loved the deep and magical forests of fairytales will instantly thrill to Paul Wonsek’s sylvan set design, a three-layered forest of giant trees, arms entwined over paths, with layers of delicate gossamer leaves, the better to tremble when a giant strides through the woods! Cottages and cows appear right on cue, and the characters skip, stride, leap, bounce or thunder through the woods—depending on the story at hand.
The fairytales intertwined in Lapine’s book are familiar, but here we see these wishful, proud, beauteous, kindly, silly and dangerous characters in a new light as they cross paths in the forest. Lapine adds a Baker (a yeoman-like Andy Baldwin) and the Baker’s wife (versatile Mary Gilbreath Grim), who long to have a child, but the evil Witch (Catherine Carpenter Cox) won’t remove her curse until they produce four iconic items from each tale. The tales are linked by a Narrator/Mysterious Man, played by James Williams.
From the moment she speaks, Cox’s hunched-over, crook-nosed Witch is fairytale-scary, and her laughter chills accordingly. In a later story, her rich soprano voice wraps around “Lament” and “Stay with Me” as she begs her captive daughter Rapunzel (willowy, sad-eyed Kelly Silverthorn) not to leave the her mother’s protective, stairless tower. Still, for now the prize must be won—and there are so many wishes at stake here. “Into the Woods” the company sings, and off we go.
Little Red Riding Hood (pert Amy Button in crack comic mode) is all innocence and curiosity as she sets off to grandma’s house. Button’s blonde curls bounce with her gait, and she’s totally cool with the huge hairy Wolf (Christopher J. Deaton) checking out the goodies in her basket. Deaton, who doubles as Cinderella’s dashing, faithless Prince, is a debonair animal, his appetite for little girls drooling from every word—and he howls sonorously. They’re hilarious singing ”Hello, Little Girl.” Even after her rescue, Red Riding Hood admits that being devoured wasn’t all bad. “He made me feel excited and scared,” she reports, all wide-eyed and eager for her next forest meet-up.
Cinderella (a wistful, light-footed Mary McElree) is a gal on the run, from mean stepsisters and everything else. McElree sings a touching duet with her mother’s ghost (Chelsea Coyne, deploying a hauntingly resonant voice) in a giant tree, their voices blending movingly. Then she’s fleeing through the woods from her charming prince, stopping only long enough to explain her motive to the Baker’s Wife in the witty “A Very Nice Prince.”
Jack (sweet-faced tenor Kyle Montgomery) is a newly minted entrepreneur, trading his beloved cow for a few magic beans, and climbing the beanstalk to seek his fortune. Montgomery’s delivery of “Giants in the Sky” is pure enthusiastic fun.
Both princes are models of arrogant, handsome, charming, shallow manhood. Deaton, as Cinderella’s Prince, is truly and comically confused by a second-act world where “faithful” and “sincere” are suddenly introduced into the story. Who wished for this? Anthony Fortino, a terrific singer and magnetic stage presence in any role, is marvelously upbeat and determined as Rapunzel’s Prince, leaping ballet-style onto and off the stage, or clawing his way up Rapunzel’s tower-length golden locks. Deaton and Fortino make a wicked comic team, comparing princely notes on the pleasures of chasing women or singing of the “Agony” once you’ve caught one and installed her in the palace.
The first, longer act moved a bit slowly on opening night, but the tempo picked up in the second act, when we follow the characters from the happily-ever-after of the first act, to the poignant and touching consequences of their wishes expressed in some of Sondheim’s best ballads. Things change, stuff happens and all the actors in this ensemble handle the shifts nimbly. Andy Baldwin’s Baker grows from confused schlep to proud father to grieving widower, expressing the despair and loss they all feel in “No More.” But, of course, there is more. The moving and rousing “No One Is Alone” is a wonderfully life-affirming hymn—and the finale reminds us to truly live we must leave the tower and take our chances in the woods.
The fun is in the journey, so follow the breadcrumbs Into the Woods.