Writers Theatre’s 2019/20 season opener, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods, is on its surface a fairytale--but these woods are much darker, and what starts as a collection of well-known fables turns into a deep reflection on life, relationships, and what happens beyond “happily ever after.” This depth elevates the musical beyond that of a punchy fairy tale mashup, but it also creates challenges: how do you find the balance between the show’s humor and its didacticism, its whimsy and its sensibility? Magically, under the direction of Gary Griffin, Writers Theatre manages just that. With an extraordinarily talented cast and a unique artistic re-imagining, WT’s Into the Woods conjures up both levity and depth in its enchanting spell.
In the play’s first act, familiar names such as Cinderella (Ximone Rose), the giant-slaying Jack (Ben Barker), and Little Red Riding Hood (Lucy Godínez), head into the woods to fulfill individual tasks, only to find their stories colliding via the machinations of a somewhat helpless Baker (Michael Mahler) and his much more capable Wife (Brianna Borger). Unbeknownst to those swept up by their meddlings, the Baker and his Wife are trying to secure four items--a white cow, a red cape, a yellow hair, and a golden slipper--to lift the Witch’s (Bethany Thomas) curse from their family. While all manage to come to a happy ending (or at least a fitting one) by Act I’s finale, their separate paths cross again in Act II, this time under more dire circumstances and through a much realer lens.
With so many story lines overlapping, it’s a lot to keep track of. At Writers Theatre, though, each actor takes a distinct and thoughtful approach to their characters. Lucy Godínez's Little Red is fittingly more over the top than many of her counterparts, and she enraptures the audience with her flawless comedic timing. Similarly, Cecilia Iole’s Rapunzel is doe-eyed and empty-headed, a perfect take on a role with few lines but much singing/screaming. Playing a more nuanced character, Rose approaches Cinderella differently; she embodies both the optimistic spirit of the protagonist we know and the more emotional side of a woman trying desperately to understand what it means to be happy. And finally, combining both caricature and realism, is Thomas’ powerful turn as Witch. Her commanding presence, booming voice, and heartbreaking rendition of the final song, help her stand out even a wealth of talented performers.
If these incredible performances aren’t enough to lure you to Glencoe, consider too the artistic approach; though traditionally performed on a large stage with numerous set pieces, the combined talents of Griffin, Scott Davis (Scene Design), and Lee Fiskness (Lighting Design) re-imagine this nontraditional fairy tale, staging it “in the round.” Instead of watching the characters enter the woods, audiences are placed inside of it, making the show’s powerful messages even more potent.
Overall, aside from a heavy-handed directional decision at the play’s end (a very literal take on “Children Will Listen”), this production is a wish come true. Writers Theatre features a new take on a familiar favorite, and this production showcases one of the finest Chicago ensembles in recent memory. You've never been in woods quite like these. (Emily Schmidt)
Highly Recommended ★★★★
Into the Woods continues at Writers Theatre through Sept. 22. More info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.
Editor's Note 9/4/19: The original version of this article included a mistaken actor credit. We sincerely appreciate this being pointed out and apologize to all affected by the error.
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