Lyric Stage's "Into the Woods": There's a Giant a-Foot

The Cast of "Into the Woods"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)
Once upon a time, it was announced that there was to be a Broadway musical based on the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm (and others, such as Charles Perrault), making most theater buffs skeptical. When word leaked that this new work, to be entitled “Into the Woods”, would have original music and lyrics by none other than Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Lapine, however, those first qualms gave way to great expectations. When the show opened in New York in 1987, it was enthusiastically embraced, running for two years. Revived in 2002, it ran another nine months, and has remained a regional staple since, as one of Sondheim’s most successful shows, coming to a theater near you as a major Hollywood film next Christmas. You won’t have to wait that long to savor the pleasures of this musical, however, since it’s the final presentation of the current season of Lyric Stage Company in a truly beautiful production, the better to see you with.

As most theatergoers probably know by now, the play centers around the story of a baker and his wife, original characters in Lapine’s book not based on any fairy tale, who desperately (too much so, as it turns out) wish to have a child, ultimately making an ill-advised pact with the local witch to reverse a curse and ensure a birth. When the witch returns to claim her part of the deal, complications ensue. Along the way, the stories of some other characters are intertwined, primarily those of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel. The first act is a mostly benevolent, straightforward narrative of familiar tales, slated to be lived happily ever after. Ah, but it’s that ever after bit that bites. In the second act, (“once upon a time …later”) reality intrudes on fantasy; we’re in more familiar Sondheim satirical and cynical territory; while this may be fatal for some, it’s sure a lot more fun for anyone who’s a child at heart. The work is a major challenge for a regional company, as it demands a relatively huge pool of talent (even with some doubling of roles): seventeen singing actors, several cows, a hen, and a giant or two. Though it has some star turns, it’s a communal work; no one is alone.

It’s thus a joy to report that Lyric’s production is simply magnificent. As directed by Spiro Veloudos, the company’s Producing Artistic Director, that pool is filled with a tremendous amount of talent, starting with the music direction by Catherine Stornetta. The cast is chock-a-block with faces both new and familiar, reading like a who’s-who of local luminaries. It includes the roles of the Witch (a hilarious Aimee Doherty), the Baker (gorgeously-voiced John Ambrosino), his Wife (a luminous Lisa Yuen), and Cinderella (the incredibly versatile Erica Spyres). Then there’s the rest of this terrific cast, including the Narrator/Mysterious Man (Will McGarrahan), Jack (Gregory Balla), Jack’s Mother (Beth Gotha), Cinderella’s Stepmother (Maureen Keiller), her stepsisters Florinda (Christina English) and Lucinda (Elise Arsenault), their Father (Arthur Waldstein), the Wolf/Cinderella’s Prince (Maurice Emmanuel Parent), Granny/Cinderella’s Mother (Teresa Winner Blume), Rapunzel (Amanda Spinella), Rapunzel’s Prince (Sam Simahk), the Steward (Jeff Mahoney) and Little Red Ridinghood (Maritza Bostic, an exciting new star just out of Salem State).

As Veloudos has stated elsewhere, his approach to “Into the Woods” is to play it straight, without added ironic touches, to trust the material. Amen to that. The technical crew’s contributions include the lovely Scenic Design by David Towlun, the magical Sound Design by Andrew Will, the wonderful Lighting Design by Scott Clyve, the clever and witty Costume Design by Elisabetta Polito, and effective Projection Design by Johnathan Carr. What the magicians in front of and behind the stage do with the relatively small playing area has to be seen to be believed and heard. Thanks to Veloudos’ perfect direction and the ensemble’s precise diction, Sondheim’s wit and whimsy are wondrous (such as the prince’s line about being at Snow White’s side, “as you cry on their biers”, or the Baker’s wife’s “the end justifies the beans”, or the Witch’s “rooting through my rutabagas, raiding my arugula and ripping up the rampion, my champion”). If children of all ages will only listen.

The fabulous (in both senses of the term) Sondheimian score includes, in the first act: “Prologue: Into the Woods”, “Hello, Little Girl”, "I Guess This Is Goodbye”, “Maybe They’re Magic”, “I Know Things Now”, “A Very Nice Prince”, “Giants in the Sky”, “Agony”, “It Takes Two”, “Stay with Me”, “On the Steps of the Palace” and “Ever After”. Then, in the second act: “Witch’s Lament”, “Any Moment”, “Moments in the Woods”, “Your Fault”, “Last Midnight”, and “No More”. And Sondheim saves the best for last, as the final two numbers are the exquisite “No One Is Alone” and the incredibly moving finale, “Children Will Listen”. You’ll have to hunt a long while to find a score so rich and so satisfying, so well sung and so marvelously performed. So what are you waiting for; let down your hair.

Toward the end of the play, the Witch warns: “Careful the tale you tell, that is the spell.” This applies to storytelling, most especially theatre. Happily (ever after?), unforgettable stagings of Sondheim classics are becoming a habit with Lyric Stage Company; it’s a habit one fondly wishes will stay unbroken. Already the company has announced a production of “Sweeney Todd” to open next season (as well as a celebration of Sondheim the season after that). One can’t wait to attend that tale.

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