Westport Country Playhouse offers delightful, dark journey INTO THE WOODS

Jacques Lamarre

Four stars

Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim’s trippy romp through the oeuvre of The Brothers Grimm, is a twisted take on timeless tales. Westport Country Playhouse’s straightforward remounting of this modern classic precedes a starry revival in New York’s Central Park with Donna Murphy and Amy Adams. Directed by Westport Artistic Director Mark Lamos, New York will have a tough act to follow and musical theatre enthusiasts are highly encouraged to head Into the Woods in Westport.

It is odd that a number of children’s theatres have tackled the piece as it is best viewed through an adult’s eyes.  The musical forces Cinderella, Little Red Ridinghood, Jack and the Beanstalk, The Baker and his Wife, and Rapunzel into a dark wood. After they achieve their Act 1 “happily ever after,” Act 2 charts a murkier path where dreams and wishes come to calamitous ends. Act 1 is packed with more songs and humor, gamely playing with our childhood familiarity with these characters. Act 2 takes us deeper into the bramble-filled forest of adulthood where a giant is on the loose bringing death, fear, blame and insecurities.

My first encounter with Into the Woods made me wish I had left at intermission. The levity of the first act feels complete with no loose strands. The second act finds the characters cynical and frightened. Much like Wicked, it makes you rethink what you know about these iconic childhood figures through far-from-rose-colored glasses. Seeing the Westport production, I had a new appreciation for the knotty, talky second half. Lamos’ way with drama serves the piece beautifully, teasing out the psychology in these myths. I still think Sondheim and collaborator James Lapine could have set some complications at the end of Act 1 to drive you back for Act 2.

Singling out any particular cast member for praise is almost inessential as they are uniformly exceptional. Sondheim’s tricky thicket of dense rhymes and lyrical rhythms requires adept singer-actors. This company has fifteen of them.  A particular treat is seeing the original 1987 Little Red Ridinghood, Danielle Ferland, revisit Into the Woods, this time in the meatier role of the Baker’s Wife. She is well-matched with Erik Liberman, who possesses a perfect Sondheim tenor.

A delightful surprise in the cast is Dana Steingold as the knife-wielding Little Red Ridinghood. Aside from a powerful singing instrument, she has razor-sharp comic timing and an hilarious nasal tone. Lauren Kennedy has the unenviable task of following in the footsteps of Bernadette Peters and Vanessa Williams as the Witch. Although not as indelible as those two performers, Kennedy adds fun and menace to the part. Her interpretation of the show’s most popular tune “Children Will Listen”was lovely.

As prince charmings-turned-cads, Nik Walker and Robert Lenzi are splendid, particularly in their humorous duet “Agony.” Jenny Latimer makes a sweet Cinderella and renders an emotionally lucid take on the melodic “No One is Alone.”

The scenic design by Allen Moyer echoes the puppet theatre that is represented in miniature onstage. With sliding flats and drops, it is a refreshing return to old-fashioned theatre. The top-notch costuming by Candice Donnelly adds to the Teutonic look of the Grimm fairy tales.

The sound design by Zachary Williamson is strong with the actors being easily heard over the wonderful six-piece orchestra. The effects applied on some of the performers’ voices are excellent, but the electronically-enhanced voice of the giant makes it somewhat difficult to make out what is being said. The thundering footsteps of the giant could also be made a little louder to become more ominous.

The opening of the Westport Country Playhouse for the season is one of the sure signs that summer is here. With Into the Woods, Sondheim conjures a daring vision for fairy tales. With this production, Mark Lamos lays claim to a more intelligent, exciting and challenging vision for summer stock.

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