Unless you lived near Broadway most of your life and had a fair amount of disposable income, you’ve probably been introduced to most great American musicals through the form of a movie. Later, if fortunate, you were able to see a live theatrical production to determine how well the movie honored its source. Regardless of how well the movie held to its source material, the medium of film changed the presentation. Just as a movie is usually not as good as the book, or even if it is as good or better than the book, it is still something different. Nothing, even live television productions of Broadway classics, can match or replace the experience of live, in-person musical theater.
I have never lived near Broadway and I am also not familiar with the concept of having disposable income. Consequently, my first experience with Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods was through the 2014 Rob Marshall directed, Disney produced movie adaptation. As far as the movie went, I had mixed feelings. I certainly enjoyed much of Sondheim’s musical genius, but I found the movie to have a frustratingly uneven tone and to drag a bit. I just sort of felt bleh about it. I was also unpleasantly surprised by the many troubling plot twists peppered throughout the second half of the movie.
With this in mind, I was a little hesitant to see The 5th Avenue Theatre’s production of Into the Woods. Although I was excited to view how the movie diverged from the source material, I thought I might have to endure a bit of a dirge. My concerns were not abated when the 5th Avenue Theatre’s managing director, Bernie Griffin, mentioned that the musical’s director Bill Berry wanted her to keep her opening night remarks short because the musical had a long running time. With those words and the dimming lights, I adjusted myself in my seat to maximize endurance. Thankfully, like so many of my anticipated fears in life, they proved to be silly and unfounded.
The 5th’s presentation of Into the Woods is a delightful presentation. Regardless of how pedestrian this makes me sound, I must mention that the musical is way better than the movie. Let the movie fade into obscurity; Into the Woods was meant to be experienced as a live theatrical presentation. I cannot compare this version to the original Broadway run, but I was too satisfied with this current production to be concerned with how it holds up to its Tony winning origins.
I’m tempted to write two reviews: one for those who’ve seen the movie and one for those who’ve never seen any production of Into the Woods. My laziness decided upon one review that will neither satisfy those familiar or unfamiliar with the plot. If you are someone without any real awareness of the plot beyond “it has something to do with fairytales,” then you will be pleasantly surprised on how the musical twists the genre. If you don’t want to see the fairytale genre twisted and deconstructed, then you should probably leave at the end of act one and wait for your more cynical significant other to make it through the second act. Sondheim (Music and Lyrics) and James Lapine (Book) have constructed a thought-provoking reimagining of the fairytale genre that still holds up in a world where the Shrek franchise has run the lampooning of fairytales into the ground.
The musical is less satire than a deconstruction of the certainty that underpins so many of our fairytale foundations. Fairytales are told to make sense of the world, to teach virtues, and to give comfort to the masses that good wins, evil fails, and the reward for persistence is a happy ending.
The first act of Into the Woods playfully engages the absurdity of fairytales and how the stories frequently make little to no sense. A baker and his wife are sent into the woods by a vindictive witch to reverse a curse of infertility. The witch gives the barren couple a ridiculous quest that leads them and weaves them into some familiar childhood stories. As each of the characters carries out their quest, we realize that the quests are rather silly. Like all good fairytales, the participants do not question the logic or narration of their quest. They kill the wolf, purchase the magic beans, lower their hair from the tower, and fight to win the prince’s heart through stuffing their foot into a lost slipper. When the strange and arbitrary tasks are completed, spells are lifted, love is found, and families are rescued from financial ruin. Everyone gets their happily ever after and the world becomes ordered and manageable through the telling and retelling of these moralistic tales. At least that is what we find in the first act. What follows is a lovely, confusing, strangely arbitrary second act that highlights the limitations of telling only happily ever after stories.
I don’t want to give up much of the second act plot for people who have not experienced any form of Into the Woods. I will say that the movie fell far short in translating the wonderful two act symmetry of the stage production. Where the movie tried to convey realism, the musical’s second act maintains a fairytale construct. The tale is less familiar, the content is surprising, the narrator changes, and the content feels far less happily ever after. Even so, it is still a fairytale or a story we are being told to help us process a world that is difficult to process. There are still lessons to be taught through strange quests; however, the lessons in the second act are more complex and it is harder for the characters and the audience to differentiate between the heroes and villains, between what is right and what is wrong, between what happily ever after and what is necessary for survival. The musical’s resistance to embracing easy tropes keeps the content fresh and very engaging.
The ensemble cast does an excellent job capturing the heart of the musical under the thoughtful direction of Bill Berry. The stage design captures the essence of the show well. The woods are given a foreboding grandeur that doesn’t become boring or oppressive to the audience. The lighting goes a long way in setting the feel and movement of the show. And the props worked for me. I could have watched Milky White the cow consume several more items than were requested by the witch.
I hesitate to highlight certain performances because this might imply that the other performers were less engaging. Even so, I must at least address the vocal power houses. Sarah Russell (Cinderella), Eric Ankrim (Baker), Cayman Ilika (Baker’s Wife), Porscha Shaw (Witch), and Mari Nelson (Narrator) can all sing the house down. I was delighted whenever a song allowed them to open up their voices. On a side note, I struggled to hear some of their voices through the speakers, particularly the voice of Sarah Russell. My hearing might be a bit off, but in a musical where so much plot is delivered through song, I would have preferred a louder, clearer mix.
It is harder to vocally wow an audience when playing a kid or comedic relief, but Sarah “SG” Garcia owned the stage as Little Red Ridinghood and Casey Raiha (Wolf/Cinderella’s Prince) and Antonio Mitchell (Rapunzel’s Prince) shared just the right amount of unsufferable narcissistic charm to make their duets…well, charming.
So, if you live near Seattle and have a small amount of disposable income, you finally have your chance to see Into the Woods the way it was meant to be seen. You won’t get a fairytale ending, but you have a good chance of feeling happily ever after when you recall experiencing this wonderful night of live, local, musical theater.