A Triumph in the “Woods”

Into the Woods Photo

With the release of the big-budget film in December 2014, “Into the Woods” has become something of a mainstream musical. Stephen Sondheim’s stage show first premiered on Broadway in 1987 and ever since then, has been performed everywhere from regional theatres to high schools due to its quirky and widely appealing premise and large variety of featured roles. However, “Into the Woods” often looks better on paper than it does on stage, for the script is quite long and, when not executed well, can significantly drag come act two. However, the current production at Derby Dinner Playhouse, which opened last week, somehow never falters and indeed realizes the script and score of Sondheim’s glorious musical in the most triumphant way possible.

The concept of “Into the Woods” is simple and, as mentioned, has mass appeal. The musical mashes up some of the most well known fairytales and puts Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack (of “Jack and the Beanstalk”) and more together in a story overflowing with metaphors and parables. A nameless baker and his wife must locate four objects in the woods in order to reverse a curse a witch has put on their family. Meanwhile, Jack, Cinderella and Little Red all have wishes of their own, and so all characters venture “into the woods” to get their wish. But it doesn’t go so well.

From the very beginning, however, Derby Dinner gets it right. The staging is wondrously innovative. The show plays as a thrust with an audience on three – maybe three and a half – sides. “Into the Woods” can have a crowded stage with characters criss-crossing one another throughout, so making the movement in his production appear fluid and deliberate is a true testament to the skill of director Lee Buckholz. His direction is only aided by Ron Riall’s spectacular set design, the concept of which was actually created by Buckholz himself.

Storybooks accent the set with subtle nuance. They don’t distract or draw attention to themselves; they simply remind us of the fantasy of this show. Cylindrical trees fly in and out and, when hazed by fog, are truly evocative of the woods they wish to represent. Large book pages decorate the floor, and the leaves of trees that extend throughout the house are actually made of pages as well. Meanwhile, Rapunzel’s tower sits in the house, further enveloping the audience in the action and bringing us into the woods along with the characters.

The performers move about this set with extraordinary profession. As the baker and his wife, Matthew Brennan and Jillian Prefach ground the story remarkably well. And as Jack, Little Red and Cinderella, Michael Luongo, Kaylee Annable and Brooke Bauersfeld exhibit deep talent and illustrate the true – and very human – arcs of their characters. Sara King’s performance as the Witch is equally superb as she brings depth and humanity, as well as comedy, to arguably the musical’s most demanding role. Billy Casey and Ryan Burch are hilariously memorable as the vain and shallow prince brothers, and Jim Hesselman is an absolute standout as the Narrator and Mysterious Man. Finally, Lem Jackson is a true scene-stealer as the cow Milky White, who is often elsewhere portrayed by an inanimate object. The rest of the ensemble shined just as brightly as their colleagues in this production and reinforced that there is no single lead in this show; it takes a village – or a kingdom – to make “Into the Woods” a success.

But what makes this production so unique is how it overcomes the obstacles so many productions succumb to. As I noted, act two is lengthy and composed of several ballads; however, with the talent of this cast, the deftness of the staging and the confluence of the outstanding technical elements, the show was kept afloat with unending vivacity, appropriately reserved at times and joyfully buoyant at others. “No One Is Alone,” an especially moving number between Cinderella and Little Red on one side of the stage and the Baker and Jack on another, was absolutely magnificent.

But that’s the norm for this show. It’s creative. It’s fresh. It’s timeless. And most importantly, it’s engaging. Though the first half can be light and fun, the latter half cannot succeed if the audience has not become emotionally invested in the characters, and in this production, by the time we are demanded to feel for these people, we do so willingly; we let go of the whimsy and see this story for what it is – a tale of growing up, of facing bitter reality, of moral relativism. Through the tremendous work of all artists who collaborated on this project, “Into the Woods,” a fanciful fairytale mashup, has never felt more genuine, more true or more unabashedly human.