Into the Woods
5th Avenue Theatre
Through March 05, 2023 get tickets and more info here
Into the Woods is one of the most popular musicals by the great (late) impresario, Stephen Sondheim. Currently playing at the 5th Avenue Theatre, the musical blends the fairy tales we all grew up with, beautiful music, and the clever, fast-as-lightning lyrics for which Sondheim acquired fame and reputation. It all makes for an enchanting evening of theatre.
The first half of the musical takes the fairy tales we all know: Jack (of bean stalk/giant killer fame), Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, a witch, two princes, Rapunzel, and a Baker and his Wife (neither are given names) that weave the stories together. The Baker and Wife need to collect four ingredients for the witch’s potion, in order to have a childless curse broken. Each character goes into the woods to achieve their goals, intersecting with the storylines of other fairytales, until all is right in the end, and all have accomplished their quests. Act Two begins showing that all is not quite happily ever after when the deceased giant’s widow seeks revenge.
The ‘Ensemble’ is minimal as almost every character has their own story line, their own song and their own moment to shine. A shout out goes to Shermona Mitchell (Jack’s mother), Shaunyce Omar-Trina Mills-Shanelle Nicole Leonard (Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters), and Brian Lange (Royal Steward) for having supporting roles and making them get noticed.
The younger cast members definitely hold their own among their peers. Red Riding Hood (Sarah “SG” Garcia) goes into the woods to visit her grandmother. Ms. Garcia makes this seemingly innocent character one to watch. She plays innocence and being jaded with a perfect blending of reality. Her voice is strong when she sings “I Know Things Now”, a journey song expressing her loss of innocence surrendering to the child’s growing up. Jack (Joshua Miller) has a journey that is similar in growing from ‘dim-witted boy’ to adolescent. His stage presence is charming and his voice filled with youthful excitement and enthusiasm as he sings, “Giants in the Sky”.
The show’s princesses both have their own journeys. True to the original Grimm’s story, Rapunzel (Miranda Antoinette) is locked away in a doorless tower until she is a young woman. Here she suffers from social exclusion and brings a certain (dark) humor to her mad adventure. Ms. Antoinette’s voice is beautiful as she sings the haunting refrain that lures both witch and prince to her prison. Cinderella (Sarah Russell) is a pure delight to watch. Her journey brings her the realization that wanting a fantasy may not mean wanting everything that comes along with it. Ms. Russell’s voice is in excellent form when she sings the complex, revelation, patter-song, “On the Steps of the Palace”.
The two princes that pursue Rapunzel and Cinderella (Antonio Mitchell and Casey Raiha) are definitely the comic relief. Both men exude a highly appealing stage presence as their characters strut around the stage. Their duet “Agony” reveals their inner desires to always “chase the maiden who runs away”. Mr. Mitchell (Rapunzel’s Prince) is a delight to watch and brings his ‘Prince’ role into further dimensions with great humor. Mr. Raiha absolutely shined in the dual roles of “Cinderella’s Prince” and “The Wolf”. Mr. Raiha was the understudy (Louis Hobson usually plays these roles), but the performance never once suffered. Mr. Raiha’s “Prince” role is a living peacock that struts around the stage. His voice is rich and he uses it well. As “The Wolf”, Mr. Raiha is smarmy and seductive to the young Red Riding Hood. He expresses the creature’s lechery perfectly in the song “Hello, Little Girl”.
The actors portraying The Baker and his Wife (Eric Ankrim and Cayman Ilika) are longtime favorites at the 5th Avenue, and for good reasons. Both know how to meticulously become the characters they present on stage, and they do it well. Cayman Ilika’s voice is as beautiful as she is, and her performance shines. Her journey is one of innocent desire that takes a few side steps. When she sings of her self-realizations in “A Moment in the Woods”, the audience finds that Ms. Ilika has taken us along with her journey, and we – as well as the character – are better for it. The journey of The Baker is perhaps one of the most rounded of the story. Mr. Ankrim starts off as the happy, but hesitant man setting off to break the curse set on his family. His charm is easily recognized, and he plays the ‘straight man’ role to his wife’s manic determination in getting ‘the curse reversed’. When the couple sings the duet, “It Takes Two”, the audience feels their joy and their love in each harmony.
The roles of The Witch and The Narrator (Porscha Shaw and Mari Nelson) are the two leads of the show. Ms. Shaw shows her talent throughout this difficult role. Handling the subtle comedy, disdain, love and loss with ease, Ms. Shaw shines. Her voice handles the quick-fire musical rhymes with grace making the brilliant lyrics a delight to hear. Whether she is rapping the contents of her garden, or lamenting the fears of her adopted child’s desire to leave the nest and see the world, Ms. Shaw shares with the audience the fun she is obviously having on stage. Mari Nelson wears several hats as she portrays different roles throughout the show. She starts as the Narrator, and remains the majority of the time for the show’s remainder. Ms. Nelson also portrays the Mysterious Stranger, the spirit of Cinderella’s mother, and the voice of the vengeful Giantess with ease, keeping the roles individually recognizable.
Sigmund Freud is the uncredited main character of the show, and he is represented by “The Woods” themselves. The Woods represents the hidden desires and fears that each character must face in order to complete their journey. Their initial journey (Act One) allows each character to confront their own ‘Id’ psyche, in order to achieve what they think they want. Their second journey (Act Two) brings each one of them back into the woods, so they can balance out their lives with their “Ego” and “Super Ego”, and find the place where they can exist.
Without a doubt it is the lyrics and music that are the real stars of any Stephen Sondheim musical. The music is sweeping, heartfelt, and draws us merrily along as if it were a trail of breadcrumbs left for us to follow. The lyrics are highly detailed and often present as much exposition to the storyline as the spoken words themselves. The words are intelligent, richly descriptive, and help define each character that sings them. This is one of the greatest challenges of singing Sondheim songs; the lyrics often fire off rhymes at a lightning pace, and they need to be clearly annunciated in order to be understood. The cast of Into the Woods does good work with this challenge, but those audience members who are not already familiar with the lyrics may still have a hard time following the rapid-fire delivery.
The costuming (Melanie Taylor Burgess) and set designs (Lex Marcos) need to be recognized for their work. Ms. Burgess departs from the traditional fairytale costumes and updates them to a more modern outfit. Cinderella’s family is dressed in bright neon colors. The Baker’s Wife wears more flowing, ‘flower-child’ attire. The Wolf, while very often represented anatomically correct – but not this time, is dressed less of a leacher and more of a 70’s pimp without the fedora and feather. For the most part it worked fine with only two costume choices leaving question. The reoccurring role of The Mysterious Stranger looked more like an extra from a Mexican Western film, complete with poncho and a cigarette hanging from their mouth. It seemed an odd choice for someone that confesses “I’m nothing serious”. The Royal Steward was dressed like a cross between an overgrown Eagle Scout and a Park Ranger. The role isn’t a large one, so the different choice of costume pulled away from the storyline anytime the actor was on stage. The set designs were more modern eclectic that previous productions of this musical. Neon lights highlighted the stage that used metal scaffolding and stairs as their set. The modern maze worked well to represent the intricate and twisted paths the characters each took as they made their journey through the woods.
Into the Woods is a fun and entertaining musical. It is for good reason one of Stephen Sondheim’s most popular. The story may possess several adult themes and circumstances, but with the sterilization of the Wolf’s costume, Into the Woods is ‘family safe’; at least, for young adults and older. This production is done well with an orchestra (led by conductor Matt Perri) to perform the wonderful music of Stephen Sondheim.
Into the Woods opened on Broadway November 05, 1987 and ran for over 765 performances. Nominated for 10 Tony Awards, the musical originally won three including Best Book of a Musical (James Lapine), Best Original Score (Stephen Sondheim) and Best Actress in a Musical (Joanna Gleason – The Baker’s Wife), and stared Bernadette Peters as “The Witch”. Two revivals were mounted in 2002 and then again in 2022. A film version – with an all-star cast – was released in 2015 and nominated for three Academy Awards.