Dallas — Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods, one of the masterpieces of American music and American theater, took the stage at Winspear Opera House Tuesday night in a powerful and unique version that delivers, in a defiantly non-glamorous staging, all the power and punch of this parable of what it means to be human.
The test of time has been more than kind to this humorous, occasionally cynical, ultimately life-affirming retelling of traditional fairy tales; its successful run on Broadway in 1987, starring Bernadette Peters, was followed by the inevitable national tour, a major West End production, decades on the community and college theater circuit (with an abridged, kid-friendly version for elementary and middle school productions), a version by Britain’s Royal Opera House, and, to verify its iconic status, the star-crowded movie version of 2014 starring Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp.
So, what do you with a musical that has become a monument? This touring version of the off-Broadway production of 2015, originally staged by Fiasco Theater, strips the cast down to 10 singing actors, several of whom take on multiple roles. (This becomes particularly intriguing and hilarious when Anthony Chatmon II portrays Cinderella’s Prince and one of the evil stepsisters at exactly the same moment).
The hardy band of theatrical virtuosos also provide the onstage orchestra of guitar, banjo, cello, bassoon, horn, trumpet, and percussion, albeit with the bulk of the instrumental responsibility beautifully supplied by pianist Evan Rees, who essentially conducts the performance from his position at the center of the action onstage. (Indeed, the relative quality of the instrumental performances provides an essential element: the cellist provides a suavely superb reading, while the trumpeter turns in a hilariously awful rendition.)
Hearing this music live again reminds that Sondheim is much more than just a great songwriter: the score of Into the Woods is brilliant by any standard of pop, classical, or Broadway music. Putting on my classical music critic/musicologist cap, I’ll observe that Into the Woods easily analyses as a set of multiple intertwined variations on a small group of main themes, This pretty fancy compositional technique results in an emotionally powerful tapestry in which the foreshadowing and return of musical motifs and melodies creates an unfailingly powerful momentum. Reorchestrated by Frank Galgano and Matt Castle for piano with occasional decoration by the other instruments, this already marvelous score takes on the pungent sophistication of post-Ellington 20th-century jazz.
Within this arching genius, the score glows with jewels. Anyone who has lost innocence on his or her own journey into the woods can hardly fail to identify with Red Riding Hood’s “I Know Things Now,” or Jack’s “Giants in the Sky”; anyone who has been guided, unwillingly, into an “ideal” match can understand Cinderella’s guardedly unenthusiastic “He’s a Very Nice Prince.” The Prologue to Act II insists that everyone is unbearably happy, when no one really is; the penultimate ensemble number, “No One is Alone” (an addition to the show during its pre-Broadway tryouts thirty years ago) provides a first-rate Broadway anthem and heart-tugger.
Dramatically, Into the Woods reminds that the stock characters we have known since childhood—Cinderella, Jack (of the Beanstalk), Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood—embody universal human characteristics, both good and bad. Lapine and Sondheim beckon us to see these characters and outcomes in a larger context: Rapunzel’s witch is a controlling mother, driven by her own insecurities; Cinderella’s Prince has a roving eye, and Cinderella ultimately wants something between her unhappy childhood as a kitchen slave and living in a Palace. Red Riding Hood is one tough, adventurous gal, wizened by experience and ready to take on any wolf who comes h her way; ironically, half-witted fetishist Jack, ready to fall in love with a cow, a harp, or any handy non-human object, becomes a giant killer and unwitting hero.
Interestingly, this production, like the movie version, dispenses with the Narrator of the original, dividing the narrating function among all the actors. Although this eliminates the pivotal moment at which the key characters chose to rid themselves of the smug expectations the Narrator represents, the point of transformation and liberation emerges intact.
The 10 cast members perform with unfailing energy, spot-on timing, and musicality. Darick Pead brings scene-stealing hyperactivity to the characters of the Cow and Rapunzel’s Prince; Chatmon, in addition to his roles as an evil stepsister and Cinderella’s Prince, makes the most of his delightfully predatory, entendre-heavy moment as the Wolf. Vanessa Reseland follows the footsteps of Peters and Streep to bring commanding presence and voice as the Witch, and Alanna Saunders, who is also Rapunzel, shines as Little Red Riding Hood.
Under the surefire direction of Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, with choreography by Lisa Shriver, these characters bound across a set decorated with a ladder, tables and chairs, and an upright piano against a backdrop of ropes, with the steel frames of grand pianos haphazardly stacked on either side of the stage. The only failure of this production is a matter of its placement in Winspear Opera House: the sheer intimacy of the production falters in this large venue, with 20-30 percent of the text, particularly in the fast-moving moments of the first act, disappearing into a space designed for the opulence of grand opera—one of the pitfalls of an intimate production in Broadway touring houses.
» Read our interview with Patrick Mulryan, who plays Jack
» Don’t forget, Industry Night for Into the Woods is Tuesday, May 23 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $30 for grand terrace or dress circle, or $60 for orchestra, terrace or mezzanine. Join us for a post-show party with members of the cast, and come dressed as your favorite fairy tale character for our costume contest.