Tuesday, June 27, 2023

"Into the Woods" at the Guthrie Theater

Six years after their stunning production of Sunday in the Park with George, the Guthrie Theater is returning to Sondheim with Into the Woods. It's probably his most frequently produced work; I've seen it eight times now, all local productions in the last 12 years. Based on familiar fairy tales, it's also perhaps the most accessible. But once you're drawn in by the familiar stories, you find that it's surprisingly complex, with themes of good and evil, right and wrong, the consequences of choices, self-interest vs. the common good, and what happens when the fairy tale subsides to reality. It also contains some of Sondheim's most playfully clever lyrics ("while her withers wither with her") and singable melodies (the most famous songs being "Children Will Listen" and "No One is Alone"). For this production, the Guthrie has enlisted Sarna Lapine as director, niece of book writer and original director James Lapine, who obviously has a deep connection to the piece. Her direction is smart, clear, and playful, and the mostly local cast is a joy to watch. Whether you've gone Into the Woods a dozen times, or this is your first time, this production makes it well worth another journey.

the cast of Into the Woods (photo by Dan Norman)
Into the Woods is a mash-up of familiar fairy tales, but with a twist. We have Cinderella with her handsome prince and missing shoe, Jack and his beanstalk that leads to a kingdom of giants, Rapunzel with her unusually long and strong hair, and a little girl in a red cape going to visit her Granny. Tying these stories together is a Baker and his Wife, who long to have children but were cursed by their neighbor, who happens to be a witch. The witch promises to reverse the spell if the couple completes a series of tasks, which will allow her to become the beautiful young witch she once was. Everyone heads into the woods to accomplish their task, where their stories intersect. At the end of the first act, everyone seems to have accomplished their "happily ever after." But the second act shows us what happens next. Happiness is complicated, actions have consequences, and things are not always what they seem. It's a little like growing up; as children we're told these fairy tales, but when we grow up we learn that life is not like fairy tales, it's complicated and messy, and "sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood." But the good news is, "no one is alone," not even witches and giants.*

This cast is dreamy from start to finish, and the great thing about this musical is that it's a true ensemble piece, so all 15 of them have a moment to shine. While in years past I have been sometimes been disappointed to see so few locals in Guthrie productions, they've made up for it this year with a cast that is 2/3 local, including many local favorites from stages around town that are making their Guthrie debut (read about some of them here). It's a thrill to see this showcase of local talent, plus a few actors from around the country, including:
  • I'll happily follow Regina Marie Williams
    into the woods any day (photo by Dan Norman)
    In an unexpected bit of casting, we have the divine Regina Marie Williams as the narrator and
    "mysterious man," and she's a delightfully wry storyteller. Dressed in modern jeans and blazer, she wanders through scenes explaining things and introducing characters, with great facial expressions reacting to whatever is happening. 
  • Broadway vet Lisa Howard is a deliciously evil witch, but also not-so-evil when she expresses her humanity in wanting to keep her daughter safe and return to her lost youth and beauty, unaware of the consequences.
  • Robert Knight (one of the few non-locals) and Madeline Trumble (a recent and welcome transplant to the area) are a wonderful Baker and his wife, Robert with a warm voice and presence, Madeline hitting all the right notes emotionally and vocally. 
  • As if it's not enough that Sasha Andreev and John Yi are super fun as the ridiculously pompous princes, they both play additional roles - Sasha as the ravenous wolf, and John as the most human cow I've ever seen, peddling around on a tricycle as Milky White and giving her a personality I never knew she had. 
  • There's no one you want singing those long high Rapunzel runs more than opera-trained Anna Hashizume, who also doubles as Cinderella's mom in a tree. 
  • Suzie Juul is just as perfect as Little Red Riding Hood as she was 11 years ago in Theater Mu's production, still "bubbly and willful." 
  • Trevor James is an adorably naughty Jack, and #TCTheater favorite Kim Kivens (incomprehensibly making her Guthrie debut) brings all of her music-comedy skills to the roles of Jack's mom and Red's grandmother. 
  • Minnesota native Emily Tyra is making her professional #TCTheater debut after spending 15 years in other locales, and her strong performance as Cinderella makes me hope she won't stay away so long again. 
  • Much like he did recently in Hamlet, Max Wojtanowicz steals scenes as the Steward and Cinderella's pop.
  • Last but not least we have the stepfamily - I'm not sure if they're evil or just wickedly funny - Kym Chambers Otto, Cat Brindisi, and Olivia Wilusz, with just the right amount of over-the-top. 
  • And as a bonus cast member, we get Greta Oglesby as the imposing voice of the giant, who played the witch in Theater Latte Da's 2015 production.
Denise Prosek leads the orchestra as the witch
(Lisa Howard) weaves magic (photo by Dan Norman)
In a talkback, some of the actors noted that this is perhaps the most difficult musical score they've ever worked on, but you wouldn't know it because under Music Director Denise Prosek, performed by this dreamy cast and the luscious orchestra, it's absolutely flawless. After entering to applause at the start of the show, she plays a grand piano and leads 11 other instrumentalists (how often do you get to see a bassoon on a musical theater stage?!) in a lush, rich, full sound that brings out all the nuances in this yummy score.

if the shoe fits... (photo by Dan Norman)
The design of the show is fresh and unexpected. The costumes (designed by Valerie Therese Bart) are a fun mix of modern and fairy tale, earthy and fantastical. Cinderella and the steps' bright candy-colored dresses are almost like something out of Dr. Seuss, while daytime Cinderella and the Bakers wear more muted functional travel gear. The animals are dressed mostly as humans with a bit of fur (which then gets transferred to Red), and the witch transforms from black and purple rags to a rainbow colored confection (even though I was watching closely I couldn't tell how they did it). In Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams's inventive scenic design, trees reach from floor to high ceiling in silhouette, behind and amongst which is nestled the orchestra. There's a tower with a spiral staircase that only goes up, and some charming two-dimensional horses. A handful of tree stumps are moved around continuously and gracefully, often by ensemble members dresses as furry forest creatures. While there's no real dancing in the show, movement like this (choreographed by Alison Solomon) keeps the story flowing. Lastly, sound and lighting design (by Beth Lake and Donald Holder, respectively) combine with the other elements to create some dramatic moments of unseen giants, and giant emotions.

The Guthrie's first summer musical in four years, Into the Woods is an all-around beautiful production of arguably the most popular musical from inarguably one of our best music-theater creators of all time. Stephen Sondheim's passing in late 2021 at the age of 91 seems to have inspired some theaters to program more of his work (see also Theater Latte Da's recent production of the much less frequently done Merrily We Roll Along). I hope it continues; the depth of his work is truly unparalleled. And it's not easy to do, but this cast, orchestra, and creative team make it look like it is. So put on your hiking shoes, pack a basket of sweets, stick to the path, and travel Into the Woods any or every day (except Mondays) now through August 13 (but don't forget your scarf!).