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Review: INTO THE WOODS at Signature Theatre

Review: INTO THE WOODS at Signature Theatre

An Enchanting Staging of a Sondheim Classic

Start with one of Stephen Sondheim's most popular musicals, produced by a company that has mounted more Sondheim shows than any other in the country. Put it in the hands of a director who has a deep respect and appreciation for the works of Sondheim, and what have you got?

Review: INTO THE WOODS at Signature Theatre
Nova Y. Payton (The Witch) in Into the Woods
at Signature Theatre. Photo by Daniel Rader.

You've got Signature Theatre's stunning production of Into The Woods, lovingly rendered by director/choreographer Matthew Gardiner and a stellar cast and creative team. It's one of those rare shows where all of the artistic and technical elements are captivating - this show is a holiday feast for both the eye and the ear.

Into the Woods melds a panoply of children's faerie tales into a single, magical, musical adventure, with all of the clever lyrics and intricate melodies that are the hallmarks of any Sondheim musical. It's one of Sondheim's most accessible works - perfect for introducing someone to the Sondheim canon, or for a youngster's first experience with live theatre

The magic begins the moment you enter the theatre, and encounter Scenic Designer Lee Savage's breathtaking set - a child's nursery, in a long abandoned Victorian house. Large patches of strips of exposed lath and plaster both convey the mood (and allow the audience to see a bit of the backstage orchestra). A large tree limb grows through an upper wall, jutting out over the room. Trailing vines spill through open windows. (Plan to arrive a few minutes early to take in this gorgeous set, and enjoy a sense of anticipation of how it will be used by the actors.)

The Narrator (gentle, grandfatherly Christopher Bloch) eases into this careworn space, and casts about until his eye lights upon a forgotten storybook. He picks it up, blows the dust from the cover, flips a few pages, and intones the famous "Once upon a time..." that opens the story, and faerie tale characters flow on stage from every nook and cranny. (No spoilers, but it's a delightful way to start the show.)

Review: INTO THE WOODS at Signature Theatre
Jake Loewenthal (Baker) and Erin
Weaver (Baker's Wife) in Into the Woods
at Signature Theatre.
Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Gardiner keeps his cast in constant motion (both in blocking and choreography) and the flow and pacing of the story is excellent. The acting is uniformly superb, and there are a few performances that deserve special recognition.

Jake Loewenthal's Baker is a wonderfully nuanced character, a study in conflicting emotions, and he handles them all with aplomb. He has both the vocal range and acting chops to handle every facet of the role, and his delivery of No More in the second act is emotionally wrenching, as tears flow down his face. It's the perfect setup for the emotional knockout punch of No One is Alone, which features many of the strongest singers in the cast.

Paired with Lowenthal as The Baker's Wife, Erin Weaver delivers a bravura performance. She moves seamlessly from scene to scene, subtly shaping the action around her, with an ever shifting mood for each moment in the show. By turns she is concerned wife, shrewish nag, scheming stranger, and coquettish paramour - her internal monologue after an unplanned tryst with a prince had the audience in stitches. Her voice is beautiful, and pairs well with whoever she sings with, and her range of facial expressions can go from Meryl Streep to Joan Crawford in the blink of an eye.

Review: INTO THE WOODS at Signature Theatre
Katie Mariko Murray (Cinderella)
in Into the Woods at Signature Theatre.
Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Into the Woods features a number of strong female characters, and Katie Mariko Murray's Cinderella tops that list. Her gorgeous singing voice and ability to deliver subtle comic asides stand out, and when she sings with Weaver (A Very Nice Prince) and David Merino (Jack), Alex De Bard (Little Red Riding Hood), and Loewenthal on No One is Alone the music just soars.

De Bard is another bright spot in a show full of them. Her Little Red Riding Hood is infused with energy, and she embodies the character perfectly. Likewise with Merino's Jack - he exudes youthful exuberance and endearing cluelessness.

As The Witch, Nova Y. Payton brings dynamic stage presence and a strong voice to the role, but she seemed to still be settling into her character choices on Opening Night. Her performance was a bit muted, and a little more dynamic (and emotional) range would put the finishing patina on a fine performance. Her transformation at the end of the first act is one of the technical high points of the show.

Review: INTO THE WOODS at Signature Theatre

From top to bottom, the costumes for this show are simply gorgeous. David Israel Reynoso has created distinct looks for each character, accentuating the social station of each - subtle, muted, simple clothes for the common folk, and bright colors and sumptuous fabrics for the rich and the royals.

Lighting designer Amanda Zieve and sound designer Eric Norris both create the perfect mood for each scene and situation with their work. The lighting turns the nursery into a forest, and creates isolated spaces within the larger set. Norris' work creating a thundering (and moving) Giant (voiced by the incomparable Phylicia Rashad) is technically flawless. You can feel the Giant's footsteps in the pit of your stomach.

Review: INTO THE WOODS at Signature Theatre
Alex De Bard (Little Red Riding Hood)
in Into the Woods at Signature Theatre.
Photo by Daniel Rader.

Into the Woods has captured pure theatre magic, and it's the perfect holiday show for the whole family. A production this unique and special is very rare, so make plans to see it before it closes.

Into the Woods runs through January 29th. Running time is approximately 2:20 minutes, with intermission. For more information about Signature Theatre, click here.




From This Author - Ken Kemp

 

Ken Kemp is an actor, director, and producer who has been active in Washington and Baltimore theatre for over 20 years. His work includes Equity and non-Equity, as well independent fil... (read more about this author)


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