BWW Review: Gary Griffin's Enchanting INTO THE WOODS at Writers Theatre
Writers Theatre opens its 2019/20 Season with INTO THE WOODS, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's beloved fairy tale mash-up, directed by Olivier Award-winning Sondheim interpreter Gary Griffin. Staged in the round in the larger of the Glencoe theater's two venues, Griffin makes the most of the intimate configuration to showcase his talented cast, a mix of Chicago veterans and younger talents. With impressive comedic instincts, dramatic acting chops, and vocal facility with Sondheim's difficult score, these are just the kind of people you'll want to get lost in a forest with for a couple of hours.
In Act One, a humble Baker (Michael Mahler) and his wife (Brianna Borger), enter the woods to gather four ingredients for a potion to break the spell of childlessness that the Witch next door (Bethany Thomas) has placed on their family. Along the way, they cross paths with Little Red (Lucy Godínez), Cinderella (Ximone Rose), Jack and Milky White (Ben Barker, Mary Poole), and Rapunzel (Cecilia Iole). The intertwining fairy tales neatly wrap up with everyone getting what they wish... until Act Two.
When a giant comes seeking revenge on Jack for killing her husband, the physical havoc she wreaks on the kingdom becomes a symbol for the swift unravelling of each character's happily ever after. Couples grapple with jealousy and infidelity; parents face the consequences of holding their children too tightly; and traumatic circumstances force young people to grow up before their time. Ultimately, this twisted fairy tale cautions: "Careful the wish you make... sometimes the spell may last / Past what you can see / And turn against you."
As an ensemble, Griffin's company tackles the humor of Act One and the darkness of Act Two equally well. Comedic standouts include Ryan McBride and Alex Benoit as Cinderella and Rapunzel's Princes, selfish dandies who leap on stage with every entrance and perform "Agony" with much flipping of coattails and dramatic flopping about. Lucy Godínez lends just the right amount of quirky, childish exuberance to Little Red, a character who often comes across as obnoxious and whiny. Ben Barker and Mary Poole are well paired as gawky young Jack and Milky White, his pet cow and best friend. Though her lines never extend beyond various tones of moo-ing, Poole's glassy-eyed facial expressions and shuffling gait elicit plenty of laughs.
Vocally, Ximone Rose charms as Cinderella, with a particularly beautiful rendition of "No One is Alone." An earnest everyman figure in the role of the Baker, Michael Mahler anchors the show's dramatic arc alongside Brianna Borger as his wife; they encounter one challenge after another in their quest to build a stable family life. Bethany Thomas gives a crowd-pleasing turn as the Witch, commanding the stage with a presence more diva than villain. These performances are only some highlights from an altogether solid cast of eighteen-plus musicians Charlotte Rivard-Hoster, Jeff Handley, and Mike Matlock, who are in costume and seated onstage throughout.
Scott Davis's whimsical, non-realistic set design welcomes the audience into the enchanted world of the forest, with a tree growing out of the piano center stage and green drapery to evoke foliage throughout the overhead spaces. Heightening the immersive feel of this production, the audience becomes a palette for the lighting by Lee Fiskness; for example, the house is drenched in crimson during Little Red's violent confrontation with the Wolf (Matt Edmonds). Mara Blumenfeld's costumes live in the traditional fairy tale world, with especially stunning handiwork on display in Cinderella's ball gown.
Gary Griffin's INTO THE WOODS casts a charming spell until the very end of the show. Unfortunately, one surprising choice in the last scene breaks the continuity of setting in a manner that I found distracting. Due to the theater's request to keep the secret, audiences will have to judge for themselves; some will likely appreciate the ending more than I did. Nevertheless, this scene is my only complaint about an otherwise beautifully staged, acted, and sung production of a Sondheim classic.
INTO THE WOODS plays through September 22 at Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, IL 60022. Tickets are priced $35 - $80 and available at 847.242.6000 or www.writerstheatre.org.
Photo by Michael Brosilow
Review by Emily McClanathan