"Into the Woods"

--Irene Backalenick

It’s fairy time at the Westport Country Playhouse, with composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” now on the boards. But this is not a “happily ever after” tale, as any Sondheim fan well knows. Sondheim pieces invariably have a bittersweet quality, stressing a darker side to life, a view suited to our times.

 

Granted that the first act does end happily. In fact, at the matinee we attended, several viewers left, thinking the show had ended. Wrong! Sondheim was just gearing up, preparing the audience for life’s realities.

 

What is the show about? Sondheim and book writer James Lapine have cleverly combined several fairy tales, including Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel. They have added a conniving Witch and a Baker and his wife, upon whom the story focuses. The Baker and his wife long for a child, but have been cursed by the Witch. Only by entering the woods to gain four items demanded by the Witch can they lift the curse. There in the woods they encounter the other familiar fairy tale characters, each of whom seeks a different goal.

 

The woods provide a metaphor for the dark night of the soul, a place wherein people grow in self-awareness and maturity, but certainly at a cost. This image has interested other writers, including Shakespeare (who uses it to good effect in “Midsummer Night’s Dream”). Emerging from the woods and into everyday life, the Baker and his wife are less than thrilled with the new baby, Red Riding Hood has grown cynical, and Cinderella’s marriage is less than idyllic. Furthermore, every one is threatened by Jack’s giant, who comes to earth to wreak havoc.

 

But let’s not give away the denouement, except to say that this particular “Into the Woods” is in excellent hands. The fine cast brings the cut-out characters to life -- particularly Dana Steingold as Little Red Ridinghood. It is a tricky business to stand out among excellent peers, but Steingold is a memorable, distinctive Ridinghood. And Justin Scott Brown creates a Jack who is both oafish and sweetly innocent. But Lauren Kennedy as the Witch and Danielle Ferland as the Baker’s Wife are also right on target. These and others of the 15-member cast create a beautiful ensemble under Mark Lamos’ impeccable direction.

 

In short, it’s time to head for the woods and meet all the fairy-tale characters of our childhood!

 

This review also appears in: nytheaterscene.com, jewish-theatre.com, jewish post (jenniecohen@aol.com)

 

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