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Into the Woods
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by James Lapine
Directed by Gary Griffin
The Muny
July 21, 2015

Heather Headley, Rob McClure, Erin Dilly Photo by Phillip Hamer  The Muny

Heather Headley, Rob McClure, Erin Dilly
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

Into the Woods has been one of my favorite musicals since I was a teenage drama geek listening to the Original Broadway Cast album on cassette tape on my Walkman. It’s the show that, after Carousel (which the Muny hasn’t staged since 1988), had been the musical I’d most wanted to see at the Muny, since the outdoor setting and wider appeal (compared to other Sondheim shows) made it an ideal choice.  Finally, in its 2015 season, the Muny has brought this modern classic to Forest Park, and it has done so in glorious fashion. With its wonderful production values and a top-notch cast, this production is a celebration of the magic of theatre.

The story is well-known now, since this play is so popular with regional, community, and school theatre companies. It’s basically a blend of various well-known fairy tales along with some original elements, as a childless Baker (Rob McClure) and his Wife (Erin Dilly) are sent on a journey to break a family curse by a mysterious Witch (Heather Headley) with secret motives of her own. Also on their own quests are Cinderella (Elena Shaddow), who wishes to escape her unhappy  home life with her cruel Stepmother (Ellen Harvey) and self-centered Stepsisters (Jennifer Diamond as Florinda, April Strelinger as Lucinda) and her weak-willed Father (Michael McCormick). She wants to attend the King’s festival , but soon finds herself being pursued by a persistent Prince (Andrew Samonsky). Meanwhile, the young lad Jack (Jason Gotay) is sent to the woods by his Mother (Zoe Vonder Haar) to sell his beloved cow, Little Red Riding Hood (Sara Kapner) meets a Wolf (also Samonsky) on the way to Grandmother’s (Anna Blair) house, and the isolated Rapunzel (Samantha Massell) lives a lonely existence being stowed away in a tower by the overprotective Witch and pines for another handsome Prince (Ryan Silverman). All these stories weave together in a complicated but clever way, with many surprises in store as the characters learn the truth of the old adage “be careful what you wish for”.

This is a story of archetypes and motivations, using fairy tales to present a complex morality tale with several important messages, especially that actions have consequences. The issue of parents as role models for their children is another major theme, as the show’s iconic closing number “Children Will Listen” exemplifies. It’s a multi-layered story, with some deceptively dark connotations, but also with a lot of fast-paced action and precisely timed comedy.  It’s one of those shows where timing is absolutely essential, and for the most part, this production gets it right. I did notice a few small issues with dropped lyrics and dialogue, although I’m sure all of that will be ironed out as the show continues its run. It’s impeccably staged, with the paramount sense of urgency maintained and the characterization compelling.

This is something of an all-star cast here, as well. Tony winner Heather Headley as the Witch is probably the most recognizable name, and she makes a profound impression, expertly conveying the Witch’s single-minded determination as well as her often creepy preoccupation with Rapunzel. Her takes on “Stay With Me” and “Witch’s Lament” are heartwrenching, and “Last Midnight” is powerfully effective, with Headley’s excellent vocals and imposing stage presence. McClure is ideally cast as the show’s Everyman figure, the Baker, bringing all the required conflict and sympathy to the role as well as a strong tenor voice. He works especially well in his scenes with McCormick as the “Mysterious Man” and with Dilly, in a winning performance as the determined, witty, and sometimes preoccupied Baker’s Wife.  Other standouts include Shaddow, who takes Cinderella on a believable emotional journey and delivers a great rendition of “On the Steps of the Palace.” Samonsky and Silverman are suitably handsome and self-absorbed as the Princes, with their duets on “Agony’ and its reprise among the comic highlights.  There’s also Kapner, displaying excellent comic timing as the snarky, confrontational Little Red and Gotay, who is amiable as the brave but not-too-bright Jack. Muny stalwart Ken Page is in excellent form and voice as the Narrator, and there are also strong turns by Vonder Haar as Jack’s Mother and Anna Blair as the ethereal figure of Cinderella’s Mother. Maggie Lakis operates a particularly expressive life-sized puppet as the cow Milk White, as well, and The Muny’s Youth Ensemble is put to clever use in various moments from the show’s storybook intro to its more somber, cautionary conclusion.

Visually, this production is a wish come true, exemplified by Michael Schweikart’s spectacular set. It’s giant storybooks in the intro give way to a more mysterious, versatile unit set that suggests a wooded setting and makes excellent use of the Muny’s giant turntable in portraying various areas in the dark and looming woods. The real trees framing the set are an added atmospheric bonus.  The costumes, by Andrea Lauer, are colorful and appropriate to the characters, with a variety of styles from the traditional to the more modern, giving the show a timeless effect.  There aren’t a lot of flashy special effects in this production, with the various transformations and magical entrances and exits mostly performed through staging or fairly simple lighting, but it all works well, with Rob Denton’s lighting being particularly striking.

Sondheim at the Muny is a wonderful thing. I wasn’t sure it would ever happen, and it has now with one of his more accessible shows. The Muny has done Into the Woods right, and I’m glad. It’s a journey of wonder, mystery, drama, comedy and tragedy, all well-paced and staged by a stellar cast.  It was worth the wait, and it’s worth the journey into the “woods” of Forest Park to witness the magic.

Elena Shaddow, Sara Kapner, Jason Gotay, Rob McClure Photo by Phillip Hamer The Muny

Elena Shaddow, Sara Kapner, Jason Gotay, Rob McClure
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

Into the Woods is running at the Muny in Forest Park until July 27th, 2015.

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